6 Strategies to Stop A Panic Attack In Its Tracks

July 16, 2018

In a recent poll on my Instagram stories, 72% of participants reported that they struggle with panic attacks.  Granted, Instagram stories aren’t exactly Brene Brown-level research, however, it’s important to me to be able to write about what would be most helpful to you, and so, here we are.   The tricky thing about panic attacks […]

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In a recent poll on my Instagram stories, 72% of participants reported that they struggle with panic attacks.  Granted, Instagram stories aren’t exactly Brene Brown-level research, however, it’s important to me to be able to write about what would be most helpful to you, and so, here we are.  
The tricky thing about panic attacks is that they affect almost everyone differently.  Sure, there may be similarities from one person to the next, but by and large, my clients report a vast array of symptoms that occur when their panic attack begins.  The one thing they all have in common, however, is that THEY SUCK. 
I mean, I’m sorry, but there’s really just no nicer way to say it.
From a racing heart and chest pain, to nausea, breathing difficulties, and a sense of extreme terror, there’s nothing pretty about a panic attack.  The worst part is that most people report having panic attacks, as in plural, as in they aren’t just a once in a lifetime occurrence.  Because of this, some people live in a near-constant state of anxiety regarding when and where their next panic attack will take place.  
As clients and readers have reached out to me regarding their struggles with panic attacks, my heart breaks for them because I know they would give anything to never have to experience the extreme discomfort of a panic attack ever again.  Can you blame them?
Enter, this post.  I’m sharing six strategies that you can try when and if a panic attack should happen to you.  Why six?  Well, if there was just one, this wouldn’t be much of a read, now would it?  Just kidding, my friends.  I’m sharing six (the same six I recommend to my clients) because it’s not an exact science.  Most likely, you’ll have to try a few different things to see what works best for you.  

Before a panic attack strikes

If there was a surefire way to prevent panic attacks, I would have told you in sentence one.  Unfortunately, there’s nothing that can eliminate your chance of having a panic attack entirely, but there are a few things you can do to reduce your risk of having one significantly.

Meditate and exercise daily – I know you’ve probably heard me say it a thousand times (well, maybe not a thousand but you’ve at least heard me say it here and here ) meditation and exercise are almost as effective as medication for people who struggle with anxiety.  And nowadays, more and more doctors are prescribing meditation and exercise along with anything they tell you to pick up at CVS or Walgreens.  So whether you’ve been having panic attacks, or you simply wish to avoid them as much as possible, I’d highly recommend you start by adding meditation and exercise to your daily routine.

What to do during a panic attack

Try “grounding” – Grounding is a technique I teach all of my clients who struggle with panic attacks, but I think it’s also just a good life skill that everyone should know.  It’s simple, SUPER effective, and you can do it anywhere, at any time.  
Here’s how it works:  When you feel a panic attack coming on, first notice what is happening.  Take a brief moment to notice the physiological changes that might be happening in your body (i.e. shallow breathing, rapid heart rate, nausea, etc.).  Then, you make a list.

Say whaaat?  

Yep, that’s right.  You begin to make a mental list of, well, anything really…but here are a few suggestions I give my clients:
1.  Television shows
2.  Movies
3.  States or countries you’ve been to
4.  Actors/Actresses
5.  Types of fruit/dessert/drinks/food
You get the idea.  If you’re by yourself (or if you don’t care if people hear you saying every state you’ve ever been to), you can say each one aloud.  Or you can write them down if you want.  Most people just start listing the items in their mind.  And once they do…BOOM…panic attack subsides or maybe doesn’t even fully begin!
Sound too good to be true?  It’s not; therapist’s honor!  Grounding works because it takes your mind off of the panic attack itself and forces your mind to go elsewhere.  It’s the same concept behind meditating before bed to stop your anxious thoughts or replacing your “hot thought” with a more balanced thought, like we discussed yesterday.  We can’t just tell ourselves “stop having a panic attack” or “stop being anxious.”  Our brains just don’t work that way.  It’s the same as telling a toddler “don’t play with that electrical cord, it’s dangerous!”  If you don’t give said toddler something that IS safe and fun to play with as well, you know they’ll be heading right back over to that electrical cord for some more “fun.”  It’s not enough to simply say “don’t do this” or “don’t think about this;”  instead, we must give ourselves something else to think about.  When we do, our brain (and the rest of our body) begins to come out of panic mode, and we find ourselves returning to the present moment with little to no collateral damage.

Or try THIS type of grounding – If lists aren’t your jam, there is another way to practice grounding.  Instead of making a mental list, bring yourself FULLY into the present moment and become an objective observer of everything you see, feel, hear, and touch.  For example, if you are at work and you feel a panic attack coming on, you might change your thoughts from “I can’t breathe, Oh no it’s happening again” to “Right now I am sitting in my office.  The chair is uncomfortable, it is made of wood.  My desk is neat and organized.  I feel the air conditioning; it’s cold in here.  The painting on the wall is a white flower.”  The idea, again, is the same as before…you’re replacing your anxiety/panic related thoughts with healthy, calm thoughts.  Remember not to judge the things you are seeing, feeling, and experiencing…just notice them, one at a time and move on.  

Either of these grounding techniques will work, but give them both a try and see which one you prefer.  Usually people have one that becomes their go-to, and that is the goal…for you to have a go-to technique when you feel a panic attack coming on.  

Follow a routine – In addition to grounding, having a routine and knowing exactly what you will do each time you feel a panic attack coming on is very helpful.  This is another instance of different people finding different things helpful, but I recommend keeping a card or paper with a 3-6 step routine that you will follow at the onset of every panic attack. I actually made you a free checklist that you can use to customize your panic attack plan of attack (you see what I did there?).

Send me my plan of attack!
 Some ideas of things you may include on the card are: stop what you are doing, sit or lay down, take 10 slow, deep breaths, practice grounding, tell yourself what is happening in a non-judgmental way (i.e. “I’m having a panic attack, I’m having tightness in my chest), tell yourself you know what to do when this happens, tell yourself this will go away soon because you know panic attacks don’t last forever.  You can add to or subtract from that list as you see helpful – some people like to smell some lavender essential oils, others like to do a progressive muscle relaxation – experiment and see what will work best for you.  But write it down on an index card and keep it handy.  When a panic attack happens, some anxiety is decreased immediately upon seeing the card and knowing that you have a surefire plan to stop panic attacks.

After a panic attack

Use a thought record – Once your panic attack subsides (and you are by yourself), try using a thought tracker to see if you can figure out the WHY behind your panic attack.  Over time, you may be able to recognize a pattern, or at least recognize a trigger that maybe you were unaware of before.  The more you understand what’s happening in your mind and why, the greater likelihood you will be able to do something about it in the future (i.e. avoid, alter, or accept the trigger/situation). 
Give yourself grace – Last but not least, I beg you to treat yourself with love and kindness once your panic attack subsides.  So many of my clients’ thoughts seems to shift to “What is wrong with me?  Why am I still having panic attacks?  I thought I was getting better!” immediately after a panic attack.  So let me just say:  there’s nothing wrong with you, recovery is not linear, and you’re showing up and doing the best you can every day, just like everyone else.  If you struggle with panic attacks, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy – it doesn’t mean anything about you, in fact, other than that this is something that you deal with occasionally.  And everyone has something that they deal with occasionally, right?  

Fist bump.  You’ve got this, my friend.  And if you feel like you could use some extra support for anxiety or panic attacks, check out my free anxiety reducing email course.  Over the course of 5 days, I’ll walk you through more of the exact coping strategies I teach my clients.  

As always, let me know if you have any questions or concerns.  I’m here for you!

Yes!  I’d love the extra anxiety support!



If you love this post, there’s a good chance you’ll love my monthly self-care workbook/magazine, My Self Care Bestie.  You can learn more or subscribe here.

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  1. Unknown says:

    Cathleen, thanks for discussing the subject. It is a fairly common subject that should be talked about more. I have suffered from panic attacks since I was 21 years old and it is a real hell to live like that. For a long time I used medication for anxiety and used alternative means like those you describe and others. Some work temporarily and others do not. The only thing that worked for me to stop panic attacks was to overcome the fear of the fear of attacks (whoever had a panic attack knows what I mean.) Barry McDonagh has several books and a program around this. ( From my experience, I think it is the most effective solution to deal with panic attacks in the long run. What do you think about this?

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