11 Self-Soothing Techniques To Use Before A Panic Attack
At some point, you may suddenly experience a panic attack — your heart races, you have chest pains, and/or you feel an overwhelming sense of dread. However, there are self-soothing techniques you can use before a panic attack so that they become more manageable, particularly if you’ve had panic attacks before and know some of the triggers that cause them.
“Panic attacks are as much physiological as they are cognitive/emotional in the experience,” Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. “Your body essentially goes into a ‘fight or flight’ response, and your sympathetic nervous system is activated and a long list of physiological symptoms occur.” He says that, clinically, some of the symptoms may mimic a heart attack — shortness of breath, sweating, chest pain, dizziness, nausea, and/or weakness.
“A panic attack can literally feel like you are going to die — cognitively, emotionally, and physiologically, your body and mind are sending signals that something is terribly wrong,” he says.
Dr. Klapow says that although panic attacks, by definition, come on suddenly, there are not really any pre-attack symptoms. But if you have had a panic attack before, it can help you identify when one is about to happen, and you can then use tactics to lessen or prevent one from happening. Below, Dr. Klapow and other experts share self-soothing techniques you can try before a panic attack.
1. Focus On Your Breathing
You may hear people say that focusing on your breathing can help you relax and become more centered, and experts agree. When it comes to a self-soothing technique before a panic attack, the same applies. Jill Whitney, licensed marriage and family therapist at Green Tree Professional Counseling and creator of the relationships and sexuality blog KeepTheTalkGoing.com, says.
“To calm run-of-the-mill anxiety, it’s usually helpful to get out of the swirl in your head by paying attention to your body,” she tells Bustle. “Notice your breathing — that removes your attention from unhelpful thoughts that may be spiraling out of control, like a gerbil on a wheel.” She says that when you settle into your breathing, you’re in the present moment, and it’s calming.
2. Practice Self-Talk
A way to help yourself stay calm is by practicing self-talk, Dr. Klapow says. “The use of self-talk is important — coaching oneself during the day to stay focused and engaged, but also reasonably calm,” he says. “This will help calm the central nervous system, including the sympathetic system.”
3. Try To Focus On Just One Thing
Related to focusing on your breathing is shifting your attention to one thing, Kailee Place, licensed professional counselor (LPC) at her private practice, Shifting Tides Therapeutic Solutions in Charleston, SC, tells Bustle.
“If you start feeling that you’re beginning to panic, focus on as few things as possible,” she says. “Zero in on your breathing and try to look at only one thing in your environment as you steady your breathing.” She says that by doing this, it will help quiet the overstimulation and physiologically slow your body down, as well.
“You will notice your heart rate drop, your thoughts slow their racing, and your body release some tension,” she says.
4. Make A List Of What You’re Afraid Of
Sometimes, what you fear may not be as bad as you think in reality. “Take responsibility to figure out what you’re afraid of,” Tina B. Tessina, PhD (aka “Dr. Romance”), psychotherapist and author of It Ends with You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction, tells Bustle. “Unless you’re in immediate, direct danger, what’s scaring or upsetting you is probably not as urgent as you think.” She suggests making a list of what you’re afraid of.
“This will help you move beyond free-floating anxiety, and begin to think more clearly,” she says.
5. Monitor Your Stress Levels
Monitoring your stress levels is important, Dr. Klapow says. “This is critical, as increased stress can trigger a panic attack,” he says. “Frequent recalibration during the day — regular breaks to deep breathe, regular movement and exercise, and adequate sleep — are all critical in reducing the chance of a panic attack.”
6. Tune In To What’s Going On Around You
Similar to focusing on one thing around you, you can also try focusing on other things going on around you when you start to feel panic coming on. “Instead of turning inward, turn outward,” Whitney says. “Focus on the physical world as you perceive it through your senses: Notice the feel of the air on your skin, observe the noises nearby (especially the noises of nature, like birdsong or the wind), and be aware of your feet solidly on the ground and the seat under your butt, holding you up.” She says that, usually, this sensory focus will help slow your racing heart and the anxious feelings you’re having will dissipate.
7. Look At The Facts
One way to help stop your panic is to look at the facts, Dr. Tessina says: Are you reacting to someone else’s panic or your own? “Get some facts about whatever is frightening you,” she says. “Is there a real, immediate threat, or is it just wise to be cautious? Does your current situation remind you of something that scared you as a child?” Dig deep and ask yourself these kinds of questions, Dr. Tessina says.
8. Move Away From Others To Recenter Yourself
Becoming anxious and on the verge of a panic attack is not fun in and of itself, but when this happens around other people, it’s even worse. Place suggests stepping away for a few minutes. “Step out of the room to quiet your mind and give yourself some time to regroup,” she says. “This way, you’ll take a few moments to collect yourself and then feel more confident in the social situation you’re in.”
9. Think Positive Thoughts
Reframing your panicky thinking into positive thoughts can also help curb your panic. “Sell yourself on positive thoughts and a positive outcome,” Dr. Tessina says. “Think of all the positives and great outcomes, and how much better your life and relationships will be without the panic.”
10. Get Out Your Phone And Look At Pictures Or Helpful Mantras And Meditations
Technology, too, can help calm you down when you feel panic set in. “Get your phone out, and if you’re prone to feeling panicky, set aside a photo album where you’ve saved fun, happy, inspirational photos that you can flip through,” Place says. “Either bring yourself into these fun memories or have a mantra/script you’ve saved that you can read to yourself.”
11. Come Up With Pre-Planned Decisions For Each Panicky Fear
Dr. Tessina suggests coming up with how to handle your fears, and in advance, if possible, especially if you have had panic attacks before and the same fears tend to come up. “Make a decision about what to do about each fear,” she says. “If it’s a relationship fear, find out what your partner is really thinking (instead of guessing). Be sure to take some action to resolve the problems or threats you’re facing.”
What To Do If You Have A Panic Attack
All in all, since panic attacks come on suddenly, Dr. Klapow says it is very hard to prevent them. However, if you do experience one, he says to keep the following things in mind: 1) You are not going to die; 2) This is a panic attack and it WILL end — it will not go on forever; 3) Working to calm your physiology down will help reduce the severity and the duration of the panic attack — going to a quiet place, focusing on regulating your breathing, stating over and over again, even if you don’t believe it, “I’m going to be OK, this is going to pass, this is just a panic attack.”
Dr. Klapow says that the more you can actively slow your physiological response down (reduce your heart rate, muscle tension, slow your breathing, get oxygen to your body), the shorter and less severe the experience will be. “Also, learning situational triggers — i.e., stressful situations, wearing your body down, etc. — and taking certain medications can help prevent the attacks from occurring,” he says.
How To Help Prevent Panic Attacks
Although you may not have much control over having a panic attack, there are some preventative measures you can take, Dr. Klapow says. “Using stress and anxiety management tools on a regular basis can prevent the frequency and intensity of panic attacks when they do occur,” he says. “You can use daily stress-management strategies, such as a daily practice of meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or other relaxation strategies.”
Dr. Klapow also says that a big part of panic attack prevention comes from engaging in healthy mental health behaviors — proper sleep, adequate stress modulation, a healthy diet, regular exercise, and stress management. “These will help reduce the chances of a panic attack occurring,” he says.
In any case, trying the self-soothing techniques above can help keep you calm both before a panic attack and overall in your day-to-day life.