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Effective Strategies for Managing Panic Attacks

Updated: Apr 4

Managing a panic attack can be a challenging experience, but with the right strategies and knowledge, it can be effectively navigated. Panic attacks are intense periods of fear or discomfort that can occur suddenly and without warning. Recognizing the signs and knowing how to cope is essential in dealing with them. 

Here's an overview and some effective management techniques for panic attacks:


What Are Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks are intense episodes of overwhelming fear or discomfort that occur suddenly and usually peak within minutes. They are often accompanied by a variety of physical and psychological symptoms, which can be so intense that people experiencing them sometimes believe they are having a heart attack or a life-threatening crisis. The exact cause of panic attacks is not fully understood, but they are thought to result from a combination of biological, environmental, and psychological factors.

Being able to identify when a panic attack is happening is the first step in managing it. Signs may include:

  • Sudden overwhelming fear

  • Palpitations

  • Sweating

  • Shaking

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

  • Feelings of derealization

  • Nausea

  • Dizziness

Panic attacks are intense episodes of overwhelming fear or discomfort… which can be so intense that people experiencing them sometimes believe they are having a heart attack or a life-threatening crisis.

What May Cause Anxiety?

It's important to note that what triggers a panic attack can vary greatly from person to person, and sometimes, a panic attack can occur without any apparent trigger. Some common causes and risk factors include:

  • Genetic Factors: A family history of anxiety disorders or panic attacks can increase the likelihood of experiencing them.

  • Stressful Life Events: Significant life changes or stressful events like the loss of a loved one, job stress, or major life transitions can trigger panic attacks. Exposure to traumatic events, chronic stress, or a history of physical or emotional abuse can increase the risk of developing panic attacks.

  • Medical Conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as thyroid problems, respiratory disorders like asthma, and heart conditions, can have symptoms that mimic or exacerbate anxiety and trigger panic attacks.

  • Substance Use: The use or withdrawal from certain substances, including caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and drugs, can trigger panic attacks in some individuals.

  • Existing Mental Health Disorders: Other mental health disorders, such as anxiety disorders, depression, or PTSD, can increase the likelihood of experiencing panic attacks.

Immediate Strategies During a Panic Attack

  • Deep Breathing

Deep breathing can sometimes be helpful for immediate and effective panic attack relief. It counteracts rapid respiration and reduces hyperventilation symptoms. By inhaling slowly through the nose, raising the abdomen, holding for a few seconds, and exhaling slowly through the mouth, the body activates its natural relaxation response, regulates heart rate, and focuses the mind away from panic triggers, creating a calming effect.

  • Acknowledge and Accept

Acknowledging and accepting a panic attack is crucial for managing it. Instead of fighting or fearing the symptoms, focus on understanding that the attack is a panic experience rather than actual physical danger or a serious problem. This eliminates fear of the unknown and helps reduce the intensity of the attack. By focusing on coping strategies for panic attacks rooted in mindfulness, the duration and severity of the attack can be reduced.

  • Focus on an Object

Focusing on a single object during a panic attack can effectively ground the mind. Pay close attention to its details, such as colour, shape, texture, and patterns. This diverts the mind from the overwhelming sensations of panic and anxiety, providing a mental anchor and reducing feelings of unreality or detachment. This simple yet effective technique can help reduce the overwhelming sensations often associated with panic attacks.

  • Mindfulness and Grounding Techniques

The '5-4-3-2-1' grounding technique is a mindfulness method that can be particularly helpful when you need to know how to distract yourself during a panic attack. It involves using your senses to stay present and focused on the present moment. By noticing five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste, you can divert your attention from distressing thoughts and sensations, calming your mind and body.

  • Relaxation Techniques

Muscle relaxation techniques can be beneficial during a panic attack by tensing and relaxing each muscle group, starting from your toes and gradually moving upwards. This helps manage physical symptoms like muscle tension and shaking, promotes a sense of calm, and provides a distraction from anxiety. It also helps re-establish control over your body's responses, making it a valuable tool for managing panic attacks. Muscle relaxation techniques are most helpful for managing panic when they are practiced and learned outside of intense panic moments. This way you have experience and practice bringing the skills to your life when you need them. 

Long-Term Strategies

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a proven psychotherapy method that effectively treats panic disorder by identifying and understanding negative thinking patterns and irrational beliefs that cause anxiety and panic attacks. Therapists work with individuals to challenge these thoughts, gradually replacing them with more realistic interpretations. CBT also involves behavioural techniques like exposure to feared situations and teaching coping skills like relaxation and mindfulness. This approach empowers individuals to control their anxiety and reduce panic attacks.

  • Increased Physical Activity and Interoceptive Exposure

Panic disorder occurs when people have panic attacks and then begin to fear experiencing additional panic attacks. They may end up restricting their lives and avoiding any possible triggers that could precipitate a panic attack. Anxiety sensations become a significant trigger and individuals learn to have anxiety about anxiety. Since physical activity can create physical feelings similar to anxiety, regular exercise, especially movements that increase your heart rate and physical tension can help people with panic disorder become more comfortable with anxiety-related sensations. Interoceptive exposure is a psychotherapeutic approach that works on similar principles. In interoceptive exposure, psychotherapists guide panic disorder suffers to safely engage in a variety of exercises specifically designed to help them experience sensations similar to panic attacks. Although this may seem counterintuitive, exposure to these experiences can help anxiety sufferers learn how to cope effectively with them and provide a sense of mastery over anxiety and panic.

  • Lifestyle Modifications

Lifestyle changes can significantly improve anxiety management. Regular physical exercise reduces stress hormones and increases endorphins, improving mood and energy. A balanced diet stabilizes blood sugar levels, reducing mood swings and stress. Adequate sleep is crucial, as sleep deprivation can worsen anxiety symptoms. Limiting or eliminating stimulants like caffeine and alcohol can also help. These lifestyle modifications form a strong foundation for mental well-being.

  • Stress Management

Stress management is crucial for controlling anxiety and preventing panic attacks. Yoga, meditation, and deep breathing techniques offer a holistic approach to stress reduction. Yoga enhances mood, increases body awareness, and promotes relaxation. Meditation encourages mindfulness, breaking the anxiety cycle. Deep breathing exercises activate the body's relaxation response, counteracting the panic response. Regular practice can significantly reduce stress levels and improve anxiety-coping skills.

  • Support Groups

Support groups are a valuable resource for individuals with panic disorder, offering a safe and understanding environment to share experiences, challenges, and coping strategies. They reduce feelings of isolation and stigma associated with mental health issues. Support groups also facilitate practical advice and tips for dealing with panic attacks and anxiety, providing emotional support and encouragement. The sense of community and understanding found in support groups is crucial for recovery and management of panic disorder.

  • Professional Help

Professional help is crucial for frequent or severe panic attacks. Mental health professionals, like psychologists or psychiatrists, offer individualized treatment plans based on an assessment of symptoms and needs. These may include therapy, medication, or a combination of both. Therapy provides skills and strategies for the effective management of anxiety attacks, while medication manages symptoms. Professionals can also address underlying issues like depression or anxiety disorders contributing to panic attacks. Engaging with a professional ensures a comprehensive approach to treatment.

CBT is a proven psychotherapy method that effectively treats panic disorder by identifying and understanding negative thinking patterns and irrational beliefs.

If you or your loved one is suffering from panic attacks, it’s completely okay to ask for assistance. Radcliffe Psychotherapy Clinic offers anxiety therapy in Toronto. Call us at (289) 801-4133 to book a session with our therapist. Anxiety and panic attacks can lead us to limit our lives. Effective help is available to help you take your life back from anxiety and panic attacks. 


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