How to Stop an Anxiety Attack

Plan what to do the next time panic strikes.

Posted Dec 08, 2018

If you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve had an anxiety attack or saw one happen to someone you care about.

That can be a cue to think about remedies. Then, if it happens again, you will be prepared.

Psychologists speak of panic attacks rather than anxiety attacks. Anxiety is ongoing. A panic attack is when your fear is acute and for a short period, you can’t function normally. During a panic attack, your heart is racing, or you might feel weak, faint, or dizzy. Your hands and fingers may tingle or feel numb. You’re sweating or getting chilled. Your stomach churns or aches. You may have chest pains or pant. You feel dread or are overwhelmed.

If you have panic disorder, the panic attacks come repeatedly and may be unpredictable. Nearly 5 percent of American adults and more than 2 percent of teens experience panic disorder at some point. The trouble runs in families and may be involved with another anxiety problem. For example, someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may have a panic attack if they can’t engage in a ritual like checking the door handle repeatedly to see that the door is closed. If you’re afraid of heights, you might have a panic attack on a mountaintop. 

How to stop an anxiety attack: Try these techniques in advance and when you feel panic coming on, choose one to do in the moment. You might do two or more in a sequence. 

  1. If you learn a breathing technique in advance, you can bring it out when you’re panicking. You might learn alternate nostril breathing. In another approach, you breathe in through your nose for a count of five, hold it for five and breathe out through your mouth for a count of five. You might breathe in for a count of five and breathe out while counting to ten. You might breathe slowly through your belly, rather than your chest. This is especially important if you are breathing fast—hyperventilating—which makes the panic worse.
  2. Close your eyes if you think you are being triggered by the environment.
  3. Remember a time or place you associate with peacefulness and summon the sensations in detail.
  4. Focus on relaxing the fingers in your hand, then your wrists, then your arms, moving through your body slowly. 
  5. If panic is coming from your thoughts, direct your mind outwards. Notice your environment. Focus on one thing and see if you can notice it in great detail, making new observations. Or you could look for four things you can see, three things you can touch, two that smell, and one you can taste. 
  6. Distract yourself. You could count backward, starting from 100. You could add up all the loose change in your wallet. The point is to give yourself a task hard enough that it requires focus, but not so hard you trigger more fear.
  7. Play with ice. It’s easiest if you keep gel packs in your freezer. You can take one out and hold it, or hold one in each hand. You might put one on your lower belly if you can lie down.
  8. After consulting a mental health professional, take a benzodiazepine like Klonopin. Anti-anxiety drugs often work quickly. But they are addictive so it’s important to learn other techniques and work towards lowering your overall anxiety, rather than relying on the prescription.

A version of this story appears on Your Care Everywhere.