picture of a man meditating under a tree
How To Stop A Panic Attack

How To Stop A Panic Attack

How do you stop a panic attack? That is what ever panic sufferer wants to know. There are many ways to do this and I have put together this guide to present several options rather than trying to sell you on a single cure. Below you’ll find detailed information on belly breathing (diaphragmatic breathing) and mindfulness. Both are fantastic ways to cope with panic and can benefit people with any severity of panic. I’ll add more strategies over time, so come back and visit.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

What is it?

This is one of the simplest yet helpful techniques that I have taught to my patients. Diaphragmatic breathing is a technique to counteract the shallow breathing of a panic attack. Put your hand on your stomach just under your rib cage and you should feel movement with each breath. What you are feeling is called the diaphragm: the muscle that helps you breathe.

circle of panic

During a panic attack our breathing changes. We breathe harder because we feel short of breath and feel afraid. Instead of letting the diaphragm breathe in a slow, relaxed, and natural manner, we try to force extra air into the lungs by using our chest. Although this type of breathing feels like it is taking in a lot of air, it is inefficient and doesn’t take in as much air as breathing with the diaphragm. On top of it, chest breathing can make you feel like you have a knot in your chest or your head is full of helium. 

Breathing Test

Let’s see how much you breathe with your chest or diaphragm using these exercises. Put your hand on the center of your chest and put another on your stomach, just below your rib cage (on the diaphragm). You can do this standing up but it’s even more noticeable if you do it lying down.

figure of person lying down

  1. Breathe normally and just notice if your hand moves at all. If your hand is moving up move, you are exerting effort in your breathing. You need to work on breathing from the diaphragm.
  2. Breathe normally and just notice if the hand on your belly is moving much. You want your hand to be moving in and out.
  3. Another way to test your breathing is breath in deeply. Where is the movement when you do this?

How To Breathe Using Your Diaphragm

The technique that I use was taught to me by my voice teacher, a former opera singer. (No, I’m not a professional or semi-professional singer and my wife and son can attest to that). You can make your diaphragm do the breathing by expelling a little more air than usual, rather than trying to breathe harder. Put one hand on the chest and one on the belly and notice if the belly moves more. That’s our goal.

 

breathing out diagram - pic 1

1. Blow out slowly for about 10 seconds. Don’t expel all your air.

holding your breath - pic 2

2. Hold your breath for a couple seconds.

breathing in - pic 3
3. Just let the air rush in and your stomach will pop out. Don’t force yourself to breathe in. It’s more like relaxing everything and letting the air just rush in on its own.

 

4. Breathe normally for about half a minute and then repeat.

Can Diaphragmatic Breathing Really Stop A Panic Attack?

Search for “panic cure” online and you will find dozens of websites that claim diaphragmatic breathing can end panic in 60 seconds. Research shows that diaphragmatic breathing is helpful to people with panic attacks. Whether it can stop a panic attack depends on how well you learn the technique. You can’t just read this or any other website and stop your next panic attack without consistent practice. If you’re getting stuck with your panic, see this post to understand what might beholding you back.

Try to practice at least once a day for 5 minutes to start.

My Opinion

Diaphragmatic breathing is way oversold as some kind of panic miracle cure on the Internet. It isn’t a cure to panic and for most people it doesn’t automatically stop panic attacks. Just like any skill it has to be practiced before it can be mastered.

You have to practice breathing when you’re not having a panic attack and do it for weeks before you can really do it during a panic attack. Selling the idea that diaphragmatic breathing is a cure for panic makes it seems way to simple to cope with panic. Coping with panic requires a lifestyle change and diaphragmatic breathing needs to be treated like one part of that – not the whole program.

But I recommend you start with this strategy if you’re just learning to cope with panic. It’s a great tool to have, it’s simple, and it will improve your coping skills.

 

Mindfulness

the mindful practice of meditation

What is it?

Mindfulness has become as one of the most popular mental health techniques in the news and popular press. There is a lot of confusion about what mindfulness is.

Mindfulness isn’t a specific technique, like diaphragmatic breathing; it is a way of living life. It is based on Buddhism, but mental health experts have striped out the religious elements. Most of us think of meditation when we think of mindfulness, but mindfulness is more about how we approach a task rather than the task itself. Meditation is a great way to develop mindfulness but you could practice mindfulness doing anything, even washing your dishes or eating a cranberry.

Mindfulness has been famously described by Jon Kabat-Zinn (a scientist, researcher, and Buddhist practitioner) as

“paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

He developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program as a way learn to be mindful and to reduce anxiety, panic, and just about any other mental health issue. But there are other ways to be mindful as well, such as yoga, Tai Chi, Qui Gong, self-reflection, and doing any activity in a mindful way.

Jon Kabat-Zinn explains what mindfulness is.

 

Does Mindfulness Help Panic?

One study found of the mindfulness based stress reduction program helped participants lower their anxiety and panic after the program and the results were maintained several years later. Although there have been many studies of anxiety, there have been very few studies of mindfulness and panic itself. But the ideas of mindfulness address many of the core problems of people with panic, such as being overly reactive to one’s own bodily sensations, racing thoughts, and worry about having future panic attacks.

Instructions For A Mindfulness Breath Meditation

I’ll just focus on how to use mindfulness meditation since that is the easiest and most direct way to learn it. There are many forms of mindfulness meditation but the simplest and most popular version is called the breath meditation.

  • Find  a comfortable spot to sit or
  • Remove distractions, such as cell phones, Facebook, or yammering children.
  • Remind yourself that you have the next 5 to 10 minutes to meditate and everything else can wait.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Take a minute to bring your attention to your body.
  • Focus your aware on your breath, either at the point where the air comes in the nostril or at the belly as it rises and falls with each breath.
  • Whenever your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to the breath.

The most important thing is to approach the meditation with the right attitudes. It’s not a technique or a relaxation trick; it’s a way to cultivate a different way of being.

  • Don’t try to control your mind. No one has perfect concentration. Your mind will wander.

My Opinion

I would recommend mindfulness training for anyone who suffers from panic. I may be somewhat biased since I practice meditation and have found mindfulness to be immensely helpful in my own personal life. But I have also used it to help many patients cope with panic. Mindfulness requires a lot of dedication and it isn’t easy, so unless you’re willing to devote the time you won’t see fast results.

The other concern for some people is that mindfulness techniques have not been developed specifically for treating panic or any other mental health problems. The idea is that the same techniques can be applied to any problem: panic, generalized anxiety, or depression.

In my experience, patients often want something directly related to dealing with a panic attack and often grow inpatient with the practice required to develop mindfulness. But in all fairness, any technique requires practice and dedication but, at least for Americans, sitting sit and meditating is really, really hard.

But remember there are many paths to mindfulness other than meditation. This video is a different form of mindfulness practice, developed by Michael Sealey.

 

I’ll keep updating this post, so check back for more information.

Photo by Wiertz Sébastien

Photo by Spirit-Fire

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Jason Drwal

Jason Drwal

I am a writer, blogger, clinical psychologist, parent, devoted spouse, coffee snob, runner, and connoisseur of exotic foods.

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