Can you imagine that every year about 11% of American adults experience panic attacks? And among them, 2-3% are prone to developing panic disorder (Cleveland Clinic, 2020).
The reasons we experience panic attacks vary. One of the most common is a history of trauma or stress, which results in your autonomic nervous system getting stuck in a state that is referred to as “autonomic arousal,” or sympathetic overdrive. This causes recurrent feelings of fight-flight-freeze, which can range from extremely annoying to debilitating (Donahue, 2020).
But in either case, it’s important to understand that the solutions to panic are many, and it’s all about finding what works for you. Let’s talk about panic attacks, understand why panic strikes, and find out 4 practical steps to deal with them.
Let’s Talk About Panic Attacks
Have you ever felt those sensations of doom that can come out of nowhere? It’s like your heart is racing, and terror is surging through your veins.
The truth is that it’s your body’s way of trying to protect you by hitting that PANIC button. But paradoxically, it’s making everything worse, and you’re flooded with symptoms of panic.
For better or for worse, panic is a completely normal biological response, and while it can feel terrifying, you are actually not in danger. In fact, experiencing a panic attack is our bodies’ simplest reaction to dealing with external stressors and adapting.
Although it can be natural to have a panic attack while faced with excessive stress, it doesn’t mean that it’s an adaptive strategy to deal with adversaries. On the contrary, prolonged panic attacks have the potential to transform into more serious conditions without proper treatment.
How can you avoid such complications? As studies show, psychotherapy for panic leads to long-term positive results. In particular, 70% of patients reported improvement after 2 years of treatment, while 45% remitted (Lund University, 2021).
Signs of a Panic Attack
People often associate panic attacks with symptoms such as shortness of breath, racing heart, feelings of doom, extreme fear, nausea, diarrhea, feeling faint or dizzy, dissociation, and much more.
However, you should know that everybody has their own flavor of panic. The important thing is to be able to quickly identify what’s going on so that you can quickly get yourself back on track.
Here are some of the most common symptoms of panic attacks:
- Shortness of breath – This symptom is related to the body’s fight or flight response. The reason is that the human body needs more oxygen while it tries to get prepared to defend itself from stressors. As a result, we experience shortness of breath.
- Racing heart – Panic attacks often fasten our heart rate, and what’s more, sometimes they might even lead to tachycardia (Martin & O’Leary, 2021). Fastened heart rate is also related to shortness of breath, heart palpitations, or a pounding sensation in the chest.
- Feelings of doom – It’s another common symptom that often precedes a panic attack. A sense of doom feels like something dramatic or frightening is about to happen.
- Extreme fear – On one hand, extreme fear can lead to panic attacks. But on the other hand, it’s also a symptom of having a panic attack. In either case, extreme fear and panic attacks create a vicious cycle of continuing fear.
Why Panic Attacks Strike?
The above-mentioned physiological reactions occur during more or less all instances of panic attacks. However, there are many different reasons why panic strikes.
For instance, some studies show that adverse childhood experiences are among the most frequent reasons for panic attacks (Cackovic et al, 2022). Other researchers believe that genetic inheritance or personality traits such as neuroticism are more prevalent risk factors (Penn Psychiatry, 2022).
The following are the most frequent reasons why panic strikes:
- Underlying stress – Long periods of intense stress can trigger panic attacks and impact the course of panic (Cackovic, C., et al, 2022).
- History of trauma – Having a history of past trauma is another reason why panic may strike. For instance, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often accompanied by episodes of sudden fear without any obvious reason in the present (Blakey, S.M., et al, 2022).
- Imbalance of meds – Sometimes chemical imbalance due to certain medications can also cause panic attacks. The reason is that usually, neurotransmitters transform information between nerve cells in the brain. And when one or more neurotransmitters aren’t in balance, their function of regulating bodily functions might be impaired. And this can lead to panic attacks (Star, K., 2020).
- Major life changes – People often find it hard to process significant changes in life. This, in combination with other risk factors, can make them vulnerable to adapt to stressors and lead to panic attacks.
How to Stop Panic? – 4 Steps to Take When Panic Strikes
If you or your loved one is prone to experiencing panic attacks, it’s important to understand how to stop panic and get through this difficult situation. These are 4 functional steps to take whenever panic strikes:
- Recognize it is a panic attack
- Apply cold to your face
- Inhale 4 counts, exhale 6 counts
- Take your rescue supports
1. Recognize It’s a Panic Attack
The first step to dealing with a panic attack is to recognize that it’s a panic attack. The truth is that sometimes people interpret simple anxiety as a panic attack, while other times they hardly realize that their condition is so severe that it might have a harmful influence on their mental and physical health.
Recognizing that you’re experiencing a panic attack will give you context to know why you feel the way you feel and will help you remember that you are safe, your panic cannot hurt you, and that it will pass.
2. Apply Cold To Your Face
It might sound a bit weird, but actually applying cold to your face is another helpful way to deal with panic attacks.
In fact, research has shown that applying cold to your face can help shift your body out of autonomic arousal and into a more relaxed, parasympathetic state. This will slow your heart rate, cool your body off, and can work very quickly. Only apply the cold for 30-second intervals, taking a 30-second break in between. In particular, a 2020 study conducted about the effect of Adapted Cold Showers on anxiety revealed reduced anxiety in participants who utilized cold water treatments (Siemieniec, S., 2020).
3. Focus On Your Breathing
However difficult your situation might seem, never forget to focus on your breathing while panic strikes. Just remember this simple formula: inhale 4 counts, exhale 6 counts and repeat.
Breathing is something you take with you everywhere you go. To stop the panic, breathe in for 4 counts, hold at the top for 4 counts, and then exhale for 6 counts, then hold for 4. Repeat this until panic has passed.
4. Take Your Rescue Supports
Remember to take your rescue support, whether that is a supplement like theanine or medicine from your doctor. For instance, studies show that amino acid supplements such as theanine can significantly reduce some symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heartbeat (Wang, L., et al, 2022).
So, whatever supplement or medication you tend to use in order to reduce the symptoms of anxiety, always remember to take this rescue support wherever you go. These tools are there to support you. You are worth using them when you need them most.
All in all, panic attacks can happen with a wide range of symptoms. Regardless of specific reasons for panic attacks, one thing is for sure – it’s almost impossible to predict when panic is going to strike.
That’s why getting to the root cause of panic is important. So talk with your doctor and be sure they’re looking at your medicines and blood work to rule out biological causes of panic.
Learn more about panic and anxiety and understand how you can naturally control these conditions, you can check out the Anxiety Breakthrough Program and learn how you can send anxiety backstage without any addictive medications.
Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational free resources, online courses, and membership group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.