Panic attacks can throw you for a loop (quite literally — they can make you dizzy), especially if you feel one coming on at school, at work, on a date — basically, somewhere you'd rather not have one. Sometimes, it may feel unavoidable, but here’s the good news: There are techniques and skills you can use to stop a panic or anxiety attack in its tracks, according to mental health experts.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) estimates 40 million American adults live with some type of anxiety disorder — with around 6 million people diagnosed with Panic Disorder, and 15 million adults diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder. However, panic or anxiety attacks do not just affect those diagnosed with those with an anxiety disorder. Dr. Sheehan D. Fisher, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University, tells Bustle, “Many people experience panic attacks without having an actual [mental] disorder. Panic attacks can occur even with other mental health disorders, or in people who don't have any.”
If you struggle with panic or anxiety attacks, there are several techniques and skills you can utilize to stop an attack if you feel one coming on in public. “A panic attack is a spike in adrenaline activated by a perceived threat, which can be both a conscious and nonconscious dynamic on the part of the sufferer. The key to controlling an anxiety attack in any environment is the paradox of accepting, versus fighting the adrenaline,” Jonathan Berent, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist, author, and anxiety expert, tells Bustle.
Moreover, Dr. Fisher says that, “A big piece of anxiety is the worry and apprehension about the anxiety or panic attack, which thus induces more anxiety and can increase the risk of having a panic attack. So when it comes down to it, a person needs to learn how to accept and let go of that worry that they could have a panic attack, because it only puts them at more risk.”
Meaning, one of the first steps to preventing a panic or anxiety attack in public is to not fight your state of mind, and redirect the pent-up anxiety you’re experiencing. Berent explains that if you are starting to feel the onset of panic or anxiety, you should try to “accept the wave of adrenaline with the interpretation that it is energy to be channeled,” or practice diaphragmatic breathing to calm yourself. Berent also says to “use a thought stopping technique, such as snapping a rubber band on your wrist” to help quell your panic.
Dr. Fisher explains practicing mindfulness — being present in your body and aware of your emotions — can also be extremely beneficial when it comes to avoiding an anxiety or panic attack in public. “If you learn how to clear your mind, focus on the moment, and not be overly preoccupied with some of those sensations that you experience that may lead to a panic attack,” he explains. “For instance, some people might feel a sweaty palm or nausea and start getting worried, and then in turn, that can lead to their anxiety increasing — which can turn into a panic attack.”
Additionally, Berent tells Bustle that “telling someone what is taking place can lessen the internal pressure and will take your mind out of defensive positioning.” Of course, confiding in a supportive friend or calling up someone you trust can be super helpful in preventing a panic attack, especially if you are at home alone. However, Dr. Fisher cautions that having always needing a support person, or needing to always utilize an escape plan (like sitting close a door) in public can actually impede long-term treatment of a panic or anxiety disorder. “For treatment, we usually try to get rid of safety behaviors,” he says. “The way to treat anxiety disorders and panic is to help the person expose themselves to things that make them feel uncomfortable, without avoiding.”
If you regularly have panic attacks in public or at home that you feel you can’t stop, it’s definitely best to seek the guidance of a mental health professional. Berent says “productive use of pharmaceuticals can help,” and suggests finding a therapist. Furthermore, Dr. Fisher explains, “For panic attacks, cognitive behavioral therapy is definitely recommended. I also a lot of times prefer to use acceptance and commitment therapy. It teaches a person how to approach thing they feel uncomfortable with so their body can adjust, and they can reduce that concern or worry.”
All in all, it seems like the best course of action is to accept your emotions, practice mindfulness, and refer back to a trusted physician if you keep having panic or anxiety attacks. While it may not always be possible to prevent a panic attack in public, you can try to use these expert-approved techniques next time you feel one coming on.