Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear and anxiety that overwhelm the mind and body and mimic the symptoms of serious medical problems, most commonly heart attacks.
Panic attacks are caused almost exclusively by your mental health, and yet they are so severe that some people end up hospitalized, others develop agoraphobia, and still others experience severe health anxiety and dread over their day to day life. It's for that reason that nearly everyone with this type of anxiety tries to find out how to get rid of panic attacks forever.
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Committing to a Long Term Panic Attack Treatment
Your panic is something you cannot expect to cure overnight. It is a process, and one that involves a significant amount of personal motivation and commitment. Make sure you've gotten the ball rolling by taking my free 7 minute anxiety test.
It's also important that you don't expect miracles. Anxiety and panic are something that your brain has learned. It's something that, even if you learn to cure it, can occasionally have setbacks. In some cases you may even need to trigger an anxiety attack on purpose, or at least accept the idea of having one, and that can be extremely difficult.
There are many different steps to getting rid of panic attacks, but to start you off, below are the five most important steps.
NOTE: These tips aren't necessarily going to stop your panic attacks right away. But if you learn not to fear them as much and allow yourself to think about them openly, they may reduce the severity of frequency. Anything that reduces the severity or frequency is extremely important for curing it, because the less you fear panic attacks, the less likely you are to have them.
Step 1: Accepting the Attack
We mentioned that you're going to need to accept the idea that you may have a panic attack. This is often the hardest part for people, but arguably one of the most important.
It's not just a mental acceptance. It's not just accepting yourself. It's also showing a willingness to put yourself in a position to get panic attacks. Think about the things that you avoid doing because of your attacks. You have to stop avoiding them, even if that means putting yourself at risk for an attack.
The reason this is important is due to a behavioral principle known by several names, most notably avoidance conditioning. By avoiding certain locations or activities in order to avoid a panic attack, you're essentially reinforcing the idea that a panic attack is warranted in those areas. If you try to avoid it in general, but someday are forced to go back, you almost guarantee a severe panic attack as a result because of this type of avoidance condition.
So what some call "facing your fears" is probably better described as accepting that attacks might happen, and coming to terms with it. You have to be willing to put yourself at risk for getting a panic attack (and possibly getting one) if you truly want to recover.
Step 2: Avoiding Thought Suppression
A similar step is also a willingness to think and talk about panic attacks openly, without fearing that others will judge you. This is based on the principle of thought suppression.
Studies showed that those that were asked not to think of a specific object or event ended up thinking about the object even more than those that were told to think about it.
In other words, if someone told you right now to not think about a purple penguin, for 10 minutes, but to ring a bell every time you did think about it, you would ring the bell more than someone that was told to think about a purple penguin.
It's not clear why this occurs. It's likely that the brain is trying actively to remember it in order to remind you to forget it, while those that are told to think about it are under no such stress. It's also possible that forcing thoughts away increases mental stress, and an increase in mental stress (aka anxiety) tends to force people to think about the object causing that stress.
Regardless, it's important that you take this principle and use it for your panic attacks as well. If you feel one coming on, you need to be able to accept it and be okay with it. It's not going to be pleasant, but you also need to be willing to talk to others about it while it's happening. If you're with someone, tell them you're having a panic attack. Don't try to hide it or fight it away. According to all available research, fighting it away simply won't work, and may possibly make the panic attack worse.
Step 3: Re-Learn Breathing
While anxiety and stress often contribute to the development of panic attacks, the symptoms aren't actually due to just anxiety, or the surge of adrenaline you receive when you have anxiety. Many are due to the way you breathe.
Most people with panic attacks and panic disorder suffer from hyperventilation. Hyperventilation is a type of fast breathing (although it may be deeper breaths, not necessarily faster breaths) where you expel too much carbon dioxide. It also causes you to feel as though you're not getting enough air, so you try to breathe in more oxygen and ultimately hyperventilate further.
Hyperventilation causes a host of symptoms related to panic attacks. These include:
- Chest pains
- Rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
- Tingling in the extremities.
While adrenaline released during an anxiety attack contributes to some of those as well, it's hyperventilation that appears to have the strongest effect on your physical symptoms.
So when you're feeling "panicky," you should start by controlling your breathing. Fight the urge to take deep breaths or expand your chest (many people try to force a yawn, and panic more when they cannot - since breathing in more oxygen doesn't help, this is counterproductive anyway). Instead, take very slow, controlled breaths. Try to breathe in for 5 to 6 seconds, hold for 2 to 3 seconds, then breathe out for 7 to 9 seconds.
This will help you regain some of your carbon dioxide. It's unlikely to stop the attack, but it should make the attack less severe overall.
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Step 4: Healthy Living
Healthy living seems like a cop out for those with anxiety. They think "of course I should live healthier." Often they follow that up with very few life changes, however.
In the case of panic attacks, healthy living is extremely important. You need to make sure you're getting a full night's sleep, because long term sleep deprivation may increase the likelihood of stress and anxiety. You also should drink a lot of water. Panic attacks can cause a lot of sweating, so ensuring you're not dehydrated (which can contribute to anxiety and panic) is important.
Healthy eating can have a tremendous effect on anxiety depending on your diet. If you can reduce bloating and gas, you'll find you get fewer instances of chest pain and possibly reduce a few of your panic attack triggers.
Finally, exercise is one of the most valuable mental health tools available. Studies have shown that exercise is as powerful as some mild anxiety medications. Exercise can be hard when you have panic attacks, but if you go back to step 1 you'll realize that the risk is worth the reward.
Step 5: Replacement Coping Tools/Distractions
The fifth step is one with a little bit of leeway. You'll need to give your mind something to replace the way that it copes with stress right now. There are two parts to true stress coping:
- Activities that do not create any stress and possibly promote relaxation or happiness.
- Distractions so that your mind can recover from anxiety without overthinking.
What you may not realize is that most stress coping is nothing more than a mental skill. Your brain learns to cope with stress simply by trying to cope with stress without allowing it to spin out of control.
That's why distractions - which may not seem like a way to help you cope - are actually so valuable. Staying busy with friends or doing fun activities distract the mind so that your mind can deal with stress on the backend. Eventually, you'll learn to cope with stress better.
Similarly, the activities you conduct for coping are not as important as people will make you believe. But they cannot involve anything that causes anxiety. That's why funny and upbeat/happy shows on TV make great coping tools, but dramas, reality shows, horror films, and even documentaries often do not.
If you experience more stress in your life, your mind isn't getting the relief it needs to heal and the replacement coping tools are less likely to work. If you perform activities that distract your brain - especially if they're outdoors and involve anything social, active, or energizing - and those activities are also filled with positive emotions (or as close as they can be considering your anxiety) you are far more likely to help yourself find relief.
Replace your mind's ability to cope with stress, and the results can be pretty dramatic.
A Slow Process - Much To Do
Of course, this is only the beginning. There are ways to get rid of panic attacks quickly, but it involves much more than the five tools above. You'll also need to try things like exposure therapy, learning to talk to others, and integrating specific panic reduction strategies into your life.
But when it comes to how to get rid of panic attacks, the tips above are a big help, and if you try them in your own time and you show a willingness to commit to them, you're likely to find some relief.
I've also helped many people get rid of their panic attacks with my free 7 minute anxiety test. This test is a great tool for learning more about your anxiety and how to cure it.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.