How To Calm Down During A Panic Attack, According To Science
If you have an anxiety disorder — or struggle with too much stress, that often pushes you over the edge — then you already know how difficult it can be to calm down during a panic attack. Once your mind starts racing, and your body fills with dread, it can be tough to relax and bring yourself back to reality.
While a panic attack will pass in a few minutes all on its own — and reminding yourself of that fact can be calming, in and of itself — there are also a few science-backed tricks you can try, to speed the process along.
Because a panic attack is anything but pleasant. "A panic attack is a sudden urge of fear and distress that takes over and makes you feel loss of control and intense fear," psychologist Dr. Danielle Forshee tells Bustle. It can cause symptoms such as shortness of breath, a pounding heart, tingling sensations in the body, nausea, sweating, and even a sense that you're going to die, Dr. Forshee says. (Even though that's not actually going to happen.)
If you have panic attacks regularly, definitely seek the help of a therapist, so they can address the underlying anxiety or panic disorder that's causing them. And, in the meantime, don't forget to give a few of these science-backed tips a try. They might be just what you need to feel better.
1. Dunk Your Face In Cold Water
While it may sound strange, dunking your face into a bowl of cold water can help stop a panic attack in its tracks.
"Research in physiology suggests that the human heart rate slows down 10 to 25 percent when our face comes into contact with ice cold water," says Dr. Forshee. "This is affective during a panic attack because when we are experiencing panic our body physiologically becomes aroused (increased heart rate is one of the symptoms of physiological arousal)."
It may be tricky to come across a bowl of ice water while out in public, but this may be a good one to try at home.
2. Ground Yourself
If you're having a panic attack, it can help to bring your mind back to reality with a few grounding techniques. "I begin by focusing on anything and everything concrete," Mary Beth Cooper, founder of With Anxiety in Tow, tells Bustle. "I notice exactly what’s in my view, taking note of the spectrum around me. I then choose one or two things to zone in on. I might notice a picture on the wall or an outfit that someone is wearing. I shift focus to what I see in order to move away from my thoughts."
By forcing yourself to notice your surroundings, it'll help get you "out of your head" where the panic is happening, and back into the real world.
3. Try Diaphragmatic Breathing
It's helpful to take deep breaths to calm down during a panic attack. But it can be even more helpful to try diaphragmatic breathing. "Forcing yourself to breathe through your diaphragm will trick your brain into believing that you are in a relaxed state," Dr. Forshee says. "When you are having a panic attack, your brain creates these physiological symptoms because it thinks that you are in need of protection (fight or flight). Diaphragmatic breathing will send signals to your brain that is not the case." Here's how to do it.
4. Play A Game
When you're having a panic attack, the last thing you might think about are all the games on your phone. But they sure can come in handy as a form of distraction, because remember — it's all about redirecting your thinking.
"The idea is it can act as a distraction to the fear or the body symptoms of anxiety," Dr. Prakash Masand MD, a psychiatrist and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence, tells Bustle. "Download some games that will distract you and get your mind off of the unpleasant symptoms you are feeling. You can also download relaxing music and guided relaxation sessions."
5. Squeeze A Stress Ball
If you're prone to anxiety attacks, it might help to keep your hands busy when you feel your panic rising. You might want to stretch and play with some putty, handle a smooth stone, squeeze a stress ball, or play with a fidget spinner. As Dr. Masand says, "Keeping something in your hands can help connect you with the present moment and also acts as a stress reliever."
6. Challenge Your Negative Thoughts
Changing your thoughts is always easier said than done when you're in the middle of a panic attack. But the more often you can practice replacing your negative, scary thoughts with ones that are more positive, the easier it will become.
"People with panic tend to catastrophize or see the worst in things," Dr. Masand says. "In other words, they believe it’s their plane that will go down or that they will embarrass themselves in a public setting, etc. Carry some positive mantras or sayings to bring you back to reality. Or better yet, prepare your own. When you have the negative thoughts of gloom and doom, write down some positive and more realistic rebuttals."
7. Ask Yourself Some Questions
"Anxiety has a way of playing tricks on your mind and causing you to see everything in a negative light," John Hamilton, LMFT, LADC and Chief Clinical Outreach Officer at Mountainside Treatment Center, tells Bustle. "One way to reduce your anxiety is by fighting back these thoughts. Next time you are feeling anxious ask yourself: Is there a reason why I am feeling anxious? Am I exaggerating the problem? Is there something I can do to solve it? How do I want to feel right now?"
Either you'll realize the answer is no, and begin to calm down. Or, you'll realize the answer is yes, and feel validated — and thus less panicked. "When feelings of anxiety are valid, realizing this can help you accept your anxiety and find ways to work through it," Hamilton says.
Of course, anxiety and panic isn't always something you can overcome on your own. These tips are simple supplements to real treatment, which you can find by talking to a therapist. In doing so, you can certainly overcome your panic attacks, however bad they may seem.