Anyone who has ever gotten a panic attack understands how uncomfortable and scary they can be, and they're often difficult to get under control. However, there are some techniques you can use to help prevent a panic attack, and although everyone responds differently, knowing some general ways to help relax yourself can be useful when panic arises. Even if you aren't able to completely stop a panic attack in its tracks, self-soothing techniques can help lessen the likelihood of a panic attack and reduce it's intensity and duration.
"If we know that we have tools to help us through the difficulties surrounding panic, the sense of capability and perspective can help us weather the panic attack with greater resilience and grit," Doreen Dodgen-Magee, PsyD, tells Bustle. "In my experience, it is important to help those suffering understand that the first goal isn’t to eliminate panic — it’s to build one’s feelings of competence in handling the panic when it comes. When we can approach ourselves with tenderness, knowing that we will care for ourselves and nurture ourselves through difficult situations, we can begin to soften to whatever comes our way."
Different techniques will work for different people, but the key is to build your toolbox so you're equipped with responses that could potentially help when you feel panic arise. Here are nine self-soothing techniques to use before a panic attack, according to an expert.
Slow Your Breathing
Everyone has heard the advice "breathe" when it comes to panic attacks, but it's more important to focus on slowing your breath than just breathing altogether. "During panic, most people try to gasp for air, as panic fools you into thinking you can’t breathe...so you try to inhale more air quickly to increase your oxygen," clinical psychologist Jennifer Sweeton, Psy.D., M.S., M.A. tells Bustle. "But what most people don’t know is that reduced oxygen isn’t what causes hyperventilation and panic symptoms. Thus, you don’t need to emphasize fast, intense inhalation.
What causes the sensations of panic is actually a reduced level of carbon dioxide in the blood that occurs with hyperventilation. To counteract this, slow your breathing when you feel the early signs of panic. "Breathe just through your nose, inhale for a count of four, and then exhale slowly for a count of six," Sweeton says. "Repeat this for several breaths, focusing on the numbers."
Refocus Your Gaze On Something Neutral
Another way to ground yourself is to find something you find beautiful — or even something neutral — and shift your gaze to it. "While breathing as deeply and evenly as possible, simply let your gaze soften and notice small details in that which you are gazing at," Dodgen-Magee says. "Practice looking for small details, then zooming your attention out and looking at the entire space."
Try To Release Some Energy
Get some energy out by engaging in physical moment. "Do a few jumping jacks or push ups," Dr. Dodgen-Magee says. "If you have a jump rope, jump a bit. Swing your arms around or, literally, shake your entire body as if shaking off the anxiety. After releasing this energy, see if you can’t pull breath a little more deeply into the lower parts of your lungs."
Attempt Progressive Relaxation
If you feel the early signs of panic, you can encourage your body to relax by engaging in a relaxation exercise, which can help reverse the stress response in your body and brain. "Tense all of your muscles and then, very slowly, imagine your body becoming warm and heavy from your toes to your head," Dr. Dodgen-Magee says. "You can also tense each muscle group in succession from feet to head, relaxing each one after five to ten seconds of tension. As you relax, work to feel your body as warm and heavy."
A large reason that panic can escalate so fast is that people misinterpret the physical sensations of panic as dangerous or signs that they are dying. Although these symptoms are no doubt distressing, they are not dangerous, but it’s the interpretation of those sensations as being dangerous that increases the panic.
"It can be helpful for people to repeat alternative interpretations while in the middle of panic, such as 'This is not dangerous. This is not dangerous. This is just a feeling of anxiety and I will be fine,'" Dr. Sweeton says. "Because it can be difficult to remember these alternative thoughts in the middle of a panic attack, some of my clients write down these soothing, more realistic panic interpretations and carry the piece of paper (or note on their phone) with them so that they can refer back to it when feeling panicked."
Repeat An Affirmation
If you feel a panic attack coming on, repeat an affirmation or a calming sentence or song lyric. "Using a soothing and repetitive phrase can break the cycle of rumination," licensed therapist Claire Bidwell Smith, tells Bustle. "This replaces the anxious thought with one that sends a message to the brain to restore the autonomic nervous system to a more serene state."
Change Your Environment
Changing up your environment can help you calm down. "If you are outside, go inside and find a comforting environment," Smith says. "Or if you are inside, go outside for a calming walk. Changing your environment will distract your brain and also provide a different sense of security and groundedness."
Practice Self-Soothing On Calm Days
When you're in the midst of panic, it can be hard to remember these techniques. But by practicing them when you're calm, you can ingrain it into your memory, so it's easier to put into practice when you feel a panic attack coming on. "Just as with our muscles and physical abilities, our ability to soothe ourselves requires practice," Dr. Dodgen-Magee says. "Build five to ten minutes of self-soothing practice into every single day and don’t forego it."
Keep these techniques in mind, and they will leave you feeling capable when the time comes to manage a panic attack.