If you get panic attacks, you never know when — or where — they will strike.
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So what happens when your heart starts racing, your breathing quickens, and you break into a sweat at work, or at a family gathering? You can’t just jump up and run out of your meeting — or your nephew’s birthday party.
It turns out, that wouldn’t be your best move anyway. Because focusing on the panic and fighting to calm yourself often just feeds the fire.
Instinct may tell you to escape the situation and get yourself under control. But that’s not likely to reduce your anxiety, says clinical psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD.
“Panic attacks feel bad, so it’s common to catastrophize what’s happening in our body. But we have to remember these attacks are actually harmless,” he says. These five tips will help you:
1. Don’t fight the feeling
If you had a close call with another car while driving, you would feel the same sensations you’d have during a panic attack. But it would feel like a normal reaction.
But when you’re at a party and your heart starts racing, it doesn’t feel normal. So your instinct is to stop it as quickly as possible. However, closing your eyes and taking deep breaths may actually fuel your body’s fight-or-flight response.
“When you do that, your brain thinks, ‘Oh my God, I’m in real trouble now, so let’s get some more juice in there,’” Dr. Bea says.
The strategies that work best to shorten a panic attack are a bit counterintuitive. But they will help the attack run its course and get the adrenaline out of your system sooner.
2. Practice mindfulness
Try to regulate your breathing, but not in order to stop the panic. Instead, use mindfulness to focus on your breathing, paying attention to the here and now, with no judgment. You can feel the panic — while realizing you don’t need to fix it.
“This attitude takes practice,” Dr. Bea says. “It’s about letting things be as they are, making no effort toward changing them.”
3. Become an observer
Think objectively about what your body is doing. Take a moment to pay attention to the unusual sensations you feel.
If you’re having a hard time breathing or feel nauseated, rate how uncomfortable each sensation is, with zero being low and 100 being high. Take stock from head to toe, and then start over. As you do so, the ratings start to come down.
“This way you aren’t trying to intervene with the sensations. You’re just noting them in an observational way,” Dr. Bea says.
4. Reach out with your senses
Take in sensory information around you. Pay attention to what you see, smell, taste and feel. What is going on inside will start to get better when you look outward and realize there is no danger.
“When you really sense what is going on in the here and now, you will realize that in most ‘nows,’ there isn’t much going on,” Dr. Bea says.
5. Make eye contact
The last strategy is to interact with someone around you. It may seem difficult when all you want is to run away, but talking with someone will help you stop trying to control the panic.
“Even if you’re just looking around at an object like a painting, it keeps you from closing your eyes, which generally intensifies the panic,” he says. “All of our joyful times occur when we direct our attention outside ourselves — but panic sucks our attention inward.”
Panic attacks typically don’t last longer than five to 10 minutes, so if you can engage in a good conversation — or even refocus your energy by reading or watching TV — you’ll settle down more quickly.
These skills can help you manage the typical, infrequent panic attack. If panic attacks happen more often or begin to interfere with your daily life, talk with your doctor about other strategies or medications that can help improve your symptoms.