For anyone who has suffered a panic attack, you know that while the episode may only last a few moments, it can feel like an eternity.
No matter what triggered you, whether it was bumping into an ex at a party or feeling overwhelmed in a crowd at a concert, the overwhelming feeling of shortness of breath, the tightness in your chest and the overall sense of doom can be terrifying.
“A panic attack is the stress response going into overdrive due to a perceived threat, and that can take all kinds of forms,” explains psychotherapist and meditation instructor Ralph De La Rosa.
Once you know what your triggers are and can sense a panic attack coming on, there are steps you can take to stop one in its tracks. Symptoms of a panic attack may also include hallucinations, claustrophobia and a sense of surreality.
By catching a panic attack in its early phase, De La Rosa says, “we have the agency to impact our emotional state.”
“The first order of business is awareness,” he says. By acknowledging what (or who) has the potential to set off a panic attack, you can work from there to derail it.
Breathing Exercises for Anxiety
Once you feel the onslaught of distressing thoughts and emotions, it’s time to practice your breath work, De La Rosa explains. “The simplest breath work is big, deep belly breaths in which you inhale low beneath the belly, to the navel, and slowly exhale through the mouth.”
Mindfulness breathing can also be an incredibly helpful tool for those who suffer from panic attacks. This form of breathing entails “little by little, letting go of all effort with the breath and elongating the space between breaths,” De La Rosa explains.
In fact, the spaces between the breaths become more important than the actual breaths, De La Rosas says. “Let the exhale go out with no pushing…the belly relaxes and goes out and softens. Let the inhale tell you when it wants to come, the next exhale will happen naturally, and it shepherds the inhale and exhale.”
This type of breathing, he says, “slows the heart rate, regulates the nervous system and halts anxious thoughts. “
Reframing Your Thoughts
But breathing isn’t the only aspect of stopping panic attack: there’s also your perception of the moment itself. “How you talk to yourself and frame or perceive the situation is huge,” De La Rosa says. “We can re-frame a situation however we want.”
In the case of a panic attack, De La Rosa suggests using it as a moment of growth and learning. When you feel a panic attack beginning, frame it as an opportunity to practice how you use your skills in combating your disorder. “Re-frame the cognition around the attack from stressful, irritating and fearful to one of interest, curiosity and meaning,” he says.
When you find meaning or purpose in something like a panic attack, you take away its power over you.
Getting Through a Panic Attack
But let’s say even with this knowledge, a panic attack still gets the better of you? Well, remember, that’s OK, and you can work through that episode by allowing it to happen and by being kind to yourself in the process.
“When we fight our negative emotions, especially something like a panic attack, it can add a second layer of stress,” De La Rosa says. “Relate to the emotion, hold the emotion and look at it with some level of empathy, gentleness and kindness. The emotions pass along much quicker when we add that ingredient to the mix.”
Even though you shouldn’t try to avoid a panic attack while it’s occurring, you can excuse yourself to the restroom to regain your composure and have some privacy, De La Rosa recommends.
Most importantly, whether you’re working toward stopping a panic attack before it starts or you’re enduring one, De La Rosa says the key is to “look at the panic and feel compassion for yourself and your situation.”