How to stop panic attacks

By Anne Holub Nov 12, 2020 • 7 min

A panic attack can be a sudden, scary experience — much like its name suggests.

It typically begins quickly and can leave you feeling worn out and wondering what happened and what you can do to avoid another attack.

What are panic attacks?

Panic attacks can happen at almost any time, and panic attacks at night may even occur. Sometimes they can be triggered by stressful situations or by seemingly nothing at all.

While experiences can vary, panic attacks typically include a sudden onset of feelings that include extreme fear and anxiety when there is no actual danger. You may feel out of control or a sense of impending doom. You also might experience:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Chest or stomach pain
  • Headache
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Shortness of breath or a tightness in the throat
  • Dizziness or faintness
  • Tingly or numb hands
  • Nausea or vomiting

After a panic attack, you may want to avoid places or triggering situations from previous attacks. It’s also common to spend a great deal of time worrying about when the next attack may happen.

It’s possible to have one or two panic attacks in your lifetime, and then never experience one again. But if you have more than a couple of panic attacks, it may be a sign of panic disorder. This condition tends to develop during the late teen years or early 20s, and it’s more common in women than in men. It's estimated that panic disorder affects 6 million Americans. Panic disorder is classified when someone has repeated, seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks (not just one, but a series of attacks over time).

What to do if you have a panic attack

If you have signs of a panic attack, contact your healthcare provider. While panic attacks themselves are not dangerous, they can be difficult to manage and symptoms may get worse without treatment. In addition, some symptoms of panic attacks resemble signs of other health conditions. Your healthcare provider can figure out if panic attacks or something else is causing your symptoms.

If you experience a panic attack, follow your treatment plan as directed by your healthcare provider. These techniques may also help during a panic attack:

  • Acknowledge the panic attack and keep reminding yourself that this is an uncomfortable but temporary feeling that will pass.
  • Have a comforting response you can repeat, like "I'm OK" or "I'm not in danger."
  • Focus on controlling your breathing and taking deep breaths. Practicing breathing exercises can relax your body and slow your heart.
  • Distract yourself by doing something simple. Brush your teeth, count to 10 or perform other tasks to take your mind off the panic attack.

Can you prevent panic attacks from recurring?

There’s no guaranteed way to keep panic attacks from happening. But working with your healthcare provider and following your treatment plan as prescribed can help manage panic attacks and panic disorder. Treatment, which often involves psychotherapy (talk therapy), medication or both, may also reduce the severity and frequency of panic attacks. The following tips may also help manage your symptoms:

  • Practice stress relief techniques, like calming exercises or yoga.
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, smoking and illegal drugs. These substances can trigger panic attacks or make them worse.
  • Consider joining a support group to connect with others who are facing the same challenges as you.
  • Adopt other healthy habits. Exercising regularly and getting enough sleep can have positive effects on your mood and health.

It may also be a good idea to keep a log of your panic attacks. Note when and where they occurred, how long they lasted and anything that may have caused them. This can help you identify possible triggers, and knowing your triggers may help you manage your panic attacks better. A log can also show if your panic attacks are becoming shorter or more infrequent, which can reveal if your treatment plan is working.

How to help someone who is having a panic attack

Watching someone have a panic attack can make you feel helpless, but there are ways you can help them. Know that someone who is having a panic attack likely just cannot calm down. If you know they’re having a panic attack, talk to the person about what's happening and acknowledge that it is likely a panic attack, not a reaction to an actual threat that could physically harm them. Be calm and use clear, comforting language to communicate calm to the person. Offer support and comfort that the uncomfortable situation and feelings will pass. Support the person after the attack and encourage them to not avoid the places or situations that spurred the panic attack.

Above all, ask for help in dealing with panic attacks, for yourself or a loved one. See your healthcare provider if you experience panic attacks. They can determine what’s causing your symptoms and create a plan to help you take charge of your health.

Published November 2020. Clinically reviewed by Jen Matz, PhD, RN.