How to Handle Panic Attacks
It may seem hard to get a grip on anxiety during a panic attack, but learning the right techniques can help you get your anxiety back under control
By Diana Rodriguez
Medically reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
Panic attacks can be terrifying. These attacks stem from profound anxiety that can make your heart pound and your knees go weak. Panic attacks can make it difficult to catch your breath and can also cause chest pain and dizziness — you may even think you’re having a heart attack. A panic attack may only last a few minutes, but it can leave you feeling frightened and uneasy.
Understanding Panic Attacks
A panic attack and its symptoms of tremendous anxiety can strike suddenly, out of the blue. While a panic attack itself may be brief, it can lead to a lasting fear of having another episode. When panic attacks and the fear of having attacks occur repeatedly, people are said to have a panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder.
“People have these panic attacks under various circumstances,” explains Martin N. Seif, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City and Greenwich, Conn. They constantly worry about having an attack and may avoid certain situations as a result. Eventually, people with panic disorder may realize that they aren’t actually afraid of the situation they’re avoiding, but rather of experiencing additional panic attacks, notes Seif.
Fortunately, you don’t have to live in fear of panic attacks. There are specific strategies you can use to help manage your anxiety and control your physical symptoms as well.
Panic Attacks: How to Take Control
The best way to stave off future panic attacks is by learning how to control your anxiety so that if you do start to notice symptoms of a panic attack, you can calm your mind and body until the symptoms fade.
“People who experience panic attacks have to learn how to cope with their feelings of panic,” says Seif. While medication can be effective, cognitive-behavioral therapy is one of the best techniques for managing panic and anxiety. “It involves recognizing that the panic-producing process is fueled by future-oriented, catastrophic thinking,” explains Seif. People with panic disorder have to become aware that their thoughts trigger a physical reaction, which results in a panic attack.
To gain control over panic disorder, it’s important to learn and practice anxiety management techniques, says Seif. Strategies that you can use to help you curb a panic attack include:
- Breathing slowly and deeply. Anxiety can cause you to breathe very quickly, which makes both the mental and physical symptoms of a panic attack even worse. When you start to feel panicky, be sure to take slow, deep breaths to soothe your mind and body.
- Think positively. Push negative thoughts out of your mind, and remind yourself that you are in control. Think about times when you’ve been able to manage situations successfully and reduce anxiety.
- Stand up for yourself. If you need to leave a situation, do so or tell someone you need to leave. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Allowing yourself to become more upset will not help if what you really need is to take a walk and blow off some steam.
- Relax your muscles. Anxiety causes your entire body to tense up, so make a conscious effort to relax each muscle from your toes all the way up to your neck and face.
Don’t wait for a panic attack to begin to try these techniques. Seif notes that it’s important to use these strategies regularly and learn to manage your anxiety in gradual stages. As you become more confident that you can rein in a panic attack, you can walk out the door each day breathing easier.
Last Updated: 06/02/2009
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