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How to Stop a Panic Attack: 6 Techniques to Try

Panic attacks can come on suddenly and be both frightening and overwhelming. If you’ve experienced a panic attack for the first time or have chronic panic attacks, it can be useful to learn a few techniques to stop a panic attack fast.

Just about everyone has had a moment of fear or panic at some point in their lives. A panic attack, however, is different from a reaction to an alarming situation. Panic attacks are characterized by a sudden, inexplicable, and overwhelming sense of fear and dread. They can cause feelings of anxiety as well as physical manifestations like heart palpitations (fluttering heartbeats), rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, or even feeling like you’re dying. These out-of-the-blue, gripping feelings of fear can be very scary, but panic attacks aren’t as uncommon as you might think.

Panic attacks can be brought on when you’re in a situation where you feel trapped or unable to escape, or when an emotional reaction to a situation leaves you feeling the same way: trapped with no good options. Knowing how to stop a panic attack while it’s happening can help reduce this stressful condition. 

A panic attack comes on suddenly, and the symptoms typically peak within 10 minutes. It’s rare for a panic attack to last more than an hour. Most last about 20 to 30 minutes. While it seems like a short amount of time in theory, when you’re in the moment, you may feel desperate to know how to stop having a panic attack. 

Symptoms of a panic attack can involve:

  • Racing heartbeat or heart palpitations
  • Chest pain, tightness, or discomfort
  • Sweating or cold sweats
  • Nausea 
  • Feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • Shaking hands, feeling like you’re trembling all over
  • Hyperventilating or shortness of breath
  • Hot flashes, followed by shivering cold flashes
  • Feeling like you’re choking or that there’s tightness around your throat or neck
  • Numbness in your extremities or tingling sensations in your hands or fingertips
  • Detachment from your surroundings or feeling like your situation is unreal
  • Fear of losing control, dying, or going crazy

Not everyone will experience a panic attack in the same way, and not every panic attack will produce all of these symptoms. The overwhelming feeling of helplessness is the most common symptom. This is why many people want to learn how to stop a panic attack naturally. 

Repeated panic attacks can take an emotional toll, both from the fear of having another panic attack and the “adrenaline hangover” that comes after the intense fearful feelings of the initial panic attack. Repeated panic attacks can indicate panic disorder.

Trying to force yourself to stop a panic attack may make your symptoms worse. However, there are some ways to stop a panic attack when you feel it coming on. 

Understanding how panic works and the stages of a panic attack can help you control your racing thoughts and calm yourself. When you understand what’s happening with your body and what will happen next, you can talk yourself through the attack.

Learning how to control your breathing can help with hyperventilation and can be a focus for racing thoughts. A technique called “box breathing” involves inhaling for four counts, holding for four counts, exhaling for four count, and then holding for four counts. Repeat this for a few minutes and focus on the counts and the breath.

Exercising regularly and getting proper sleep are also ways to lower your susceptibility for panic attacks. Exercise helps regulate your emotions and reduce stress. Regular, quality sleep can make it easier to manage upsetting situations and negative emotional responses that accompany them. 

Relaxation techniques, like gentle yoga or daily meditation, can also help center you. When you practice mindfulness and develop consistency with meditation, you may more easily be able to soothe your fears with the meditation techniques you practice when you’re calmer.

Managing certain medical conditions that lead to panic attacks can also help. These can include mitral valve prolapse, when one of the heart’s valves doesn’t close properly, hyperthyroidism, and hypoglycemia.

Certain lifestyle choices like stimulant use (pre-workouts, excessive caffeine, cocaine, or methamphetamines) or medication withdrawal can trigger panic attacks. Being aware of these effects may also help you manage your symptoms and their frequency. Talk with your health care provider to get help quitting the stimulants or adjusting the medications that cause the attacks.

Other triggers for panic attacks include certain life changes and major transitions like having a baby, losing a loved one, getting married or divorced, losing your job, or graduating college.

If you have recurrent panic attacks, whether they come on without a definite trigger or are triggered by certain situations, you may wish to see a specialist, especially if the panic attacks are beginning to interfere with your daily life. For example, if you have panic attacks about speaking in public, this may inhibit your chances of receiving promotions at work. Panic attacks from driving over bridges or going through heavy traffic can limit your opportunities to travel or may make your daily commute stressful and overly difficult.

Repeated panic attacks may indicate that you have panic disorder. Panic disorder is characterized by repeated panic attacks and a noticeable fear that you’ll suffer from another one. Without treatment, panic disorder can lead to other difficult, anxiety-related conditions such as:

  • Phobic avoidance, where you begin avoiding certain situations and environments that trigger a panic attack. You may, either consciously or unconsciously, begin to avoid situations that correlate with your panic attack. You may also avoid places that are difficult to escape or places where you don’t think you’ll get help. If this condition is left untreated, it can lead to agoraphobia, which is a fear of going into public or talking to others.
  • Anticipatory anxiety is the “fear of fear,” or worry and anxiety about having another panic attack. For most people, the times in between a panic attack are relatively worry-free. Those with anticipatory anxiety have feelings of nervousness in between attacks, stemming from a fear of future attacks.

If the panic attacks are starting to take a long-term toll on your health, such as high blood pressure or stress headaches, certain medications can help. These can reduce the effects of the panic attack on your body and help you find mental relief.

Some people experience panic attacks yet are otherwise happy and healthy. Others may have panic attacks stemming from undiagnosed depression, generalized anxiety disorder, or bipolar disorder. These mental health illnesses can be treated with therapy, medication, or a combination of both. Often, treating the underlying cause of panic attacks will help the attacks naturally resolve themselves.

Panic attacks, while frightening, aren’t typically life-threatening, although chronic panic attacks can have a dramatic effect on your overall quality of life. While an occasional panic attack isn’t something to be overly concerned about, repeated panic attacks can lead to worsening mental health conditions. If you have frequent bouts of panic attacks or if your panic attacks are affecting your ability to do your job, enjoy your relationships, or experience daily life, you should speak with a specialist. 

https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/panic-attacks-and-panic-disorders.htm

https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/panic-disorder-agoraphobia/symptoms

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/panic-attacks/symptoms-causes/syc-20376021

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1444835/

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/understanding-panic/

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