Having a panic attack or think you might be having one? Not every calming strategy will work for everyone, but it’s worth trying something to help.
Signs of panic attacks
Panic attack symptoms can impact every part of the body and brain.
- racing heart
- excessive sweating
- shortness of breath
- feeling like you’re about to die
- sense of impending danger
- lack of focus
- loss of appetite
- feeling out of control
- unexplained crying
- uncontrollable hunched posture
- feeling like you can’t swallow food
- hot flashes
- feeling like you need to yawn but can’t
Whether your panic stems from work stress, relationships, trauma, neurodivergence, or something else, we hope you will try at least one of the strategies below to calm yourself down during a panic or anxiety attack.
Try this first
If you can, get yourself comfortable. That might just mean unclenching your hands or letting your shoulders fall back a little.
Take a deep enough breath so that you can extend your exhale as long as possible.
Now look up and around you. Notice 5 things that catch your eye. Take another breath, with a long exhale.
What can you feel around you? Find 4 things. Maybe it’s the chair against your back. Maybe it’s the texture of your pants, or the feeling of your hands brushing each other.
Take another breath or two. What 3 things do you hear? I hear the whirr of my fan, my upstairs neighbor’s feet, and my breath. Maybe you hear the sound of your heart that’s still racing. Have faith that it will calm down soon.
Can you smell 2 separate scents from where you are? Turn your head toward your hair, lift your hand to your face, or just notice what the room smells like.
Lastly, what do you taste? Maybe it’s a gulp of water, or maybe you can take a bite from a yummy treat nearby.
Breathe again and consciously relax your muscles for a moment– even if they tighten right back up.
How do you feel now? What else might make you feel better next?
Techniques by symptom
It can feel hard to control your own mind during a panic attack–which makes the symptoms even scarier. However, the fight for control can make panic attacks worse. So to regain control, you might have to let go of it for a moment. Lean into what your brain is asking for.
Because hyper-awareness often drives a panic attack, the goal is to strategically distract yourself with anything that you’ll automatically process in a calming way.
Chest pain, muscle tightness, short breath: feels like a heart attack
The scariest part of an anxiety attack is often the feeling of physical danger and unrest that underlies the whole thing. You might sweat a lot, feel all your muscles tense up, or feel like you’re having a heart attack. To tone down the feeling of danger, you can try a couple techniques.
Safely notice sensations: put your right hand over your heart, on your neck, or even on your left side/ribcage. Focus on the temperature of your hand, how it changes, how the pressure feels. Notice your heart beating and your chest rising and falling as you breathe.
Discreetly comfort yourself: place your right hand on your left ribcage, and your left hand on your right upper arm. Remember this body is just your container, and that you are in control of this container. This exercise can also feel like a comforting hug, and doesn’t look strange to do out in public (it’s like crossing your arms).
Intrusive memories and racing thoughts
Visualize a safe space: think of being somewhere that doesn’t remind you of the bad stuff, and that actively makes you happy. It could be laying out on the beach, or strolling around your cabin in the woods. Try to focus on the exact details and picture as much of it as you can. Breathe deeply while you do this, and lean into the feeling. This is your happy place.
Preoccupy your mind until your body can calm down: try tasks requiring intense concentration, like long division problems or counting numbers out of order.
Focus on something, anything: whether it’s repeating a mantra or assessing everything about a focus object, get your mind stuck on something to help come out of a panic attack.
Breathe, with help: Any guided breathing exercise on the internet will do, but here’s an easy one. Gently breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, in time with the picture below. If the picture is too much, just close your eyes and count to four for each inhale and exhale.
Talk to someone
Remember, panic attacks last only 15 minutes on average. Even if it’s 15 minutes of torture, you will come out the other side.