An anxiety attack is a sudden wave of intense fear and anxiety, accompanied by a pounding heart, a tightening chest, shallow breathing, and the sensation that the world is crumbling around you. This overwhelming experience is common but nonetheless frightening and confusing, and even just one attack can instill a deep fear of the experience happening again.
Attacks are incredibly uncomfortable and can lead those who are prone to avoidance behaviors. In themselves, they’re not usually harmful in the long term, but the lengths one may go to avoid them can be damaging, such as substance misuse, social isolation, and even self-harm.
In this article, we’ll offer some evidence-based methods and techniques to help you on how to calm down from an anxiety attack. Each person’s experience of an attack is unique, so what works for one person may not be as effective for another. As such, it’s wise to have various tools and techniques under your belt to apply when you need them.
If you’re one of the 1 in 5 US adults or 1 in 13 people globally who struggle with an anxiety disorder, then you may already be all too familiar with anxiety/panic attacks. No matter how much experience you have with them, they’re always a pain. Rationally, you know that you’re not really in danger, but your rational mind and your body disagree and send you into hyperdrive survival mode.
To begin, we’ll offer some psychoeducation regarding anxiety. Psychoeducation is one of the most important tools we have in the face of anxiety, as well other mental health issues and life in general. By understanding what anxiety is and what causes attacks, you’ll develop a clearer sense of what is happening in your brain and body during a wave.
What is an anxiety attack?
In some cases, attacks can be expected, such as when a person has a specific phobia, like entering a closed space and feeling claustrophobic, or entering a large open public space with lots of people and feeling agoraphobic. At other times they come on suddenly, with no obvious trigger. In both cases, the experience can be deeply confusing and frightening.
The person suffering typically experiences a range of mental and physical symptoms, including:
- Heart palpitations, chest pain, feeling like you’re having a heart attack
- Numbness in the extremities
- Aches and pain throughout the body
- Excessive sweating and shaking
- Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath
Mental and emotional symptoms
- Intense fear
- Fear of loss of control
- Detachment or dissociation from one’s body, sense of disconnection from the world
The nervousness, sweating, fear, dissociation, and other symptoms all happen at or around the same time and make the person experiencing them feel incredibly overwhelmed. As mentioned, sometimes there are obvious triggers, but it’s often the case that anxiety seems to come from nowhere. As such, they can be incredibly debilitating.
Most if not all of us tend to suppress the experience as much as possible because of its severe discomfort or even embarrassment about having such a reaction to no apparent danger in public. The problem with trying to stop the experience by suppressing or denying it is that these tactics tend to make panic attacks worse.
What causes anxiety attacks?
Anxiety attacks happen when one’s anxiety disorder has been triggered, and attack-prevention techniques have not been applied in time. There is a range of anxiety disorders that can culminate in anxiety and panic attacks, including:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Specific phobia
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Adult separation anxiety disorder
If you experience any of the above, then you’ll know that symptoms can vary in severity and frequency. You may have days and weeks with mild to no symptoms, while other days and weeks are challenging and close to overwhelming. What separates one type of day or week from another typically has a lot to do with other factors in one’s life, such as their diet, their stress levels and level of effective stress management, whether or not they’re going through a significant life change, and so on.
Self-help techniques for anxiety attacks
1. Bring attention to your breath
Deep breathing is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal when it comes to anxiety. Amid a panic or anxiety attack, your breathing becomes shallow and quick. The more you breathe this way, the stronger the message you send to your brain that you’re in danger. If there really was a threat, then breathing like this would make sense because it would help you fight or flee. However, since there’s no threat, it’s safe to hack your breathing and slow it down.
You can slow down the breath and restore a sense of calm and safety in the body through deep diaphragmatic breathing. This is a method of breathing deep into the diaphragm, a dome-shaped tissue just above the abdomen, and letting the breath fall out naturally. We breathe all the time, but many of us don’t breathe deeply into this area of the body. Yet doing so has found healing effects, especially for anxiety issues.
To effectively use diaphragmatic breathing in the face of a panic attack, it helps to apply the technique as soon as you feel the onset of symptoms.
How to breathe into the diaphragm
- To begin with, blow all of the breath out of your body. When you feel like the breath is all out, push out just a little bit more.
- Next, draw a long breath in through the nose and down into the diaphragm. To bring the breath down enough, place one hand on your chest and another on your abdomen. As you breathe, keep the chest in place but allow your abdomen to push out.
- As your lungs fill with air, don’t push the breath out, Instead, let it fall out naturally, again through the nose.
- At the end of the breath, pause for two to three seconds and repeat, drawing the breath in through the nose down into the diaphragms and again letting it fall out naturally.
Breathing this way for three to five minutes has a profound healing effect on the body and helps the brain viscerally understand that we are safe. It can take the edge off of the panic and give you enough mental space and clarity to return to the present moment.
Practice makes perfect
It’s wise to practice breathing techniques for anxiety and relaxation before you need them. If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack or been around someone going through one, you’ll know that it can be hard to get advice and messages through. From the experiencer’s perspective, it can feel as though large waves or the buzz of TV static are all around them, and messages from the outside have a tough time getting in. Frantically telling the person suffering to ‘just breathe!’ or ‘slow down your breathing’ might seem like a good idea, but it can also heighten the experience.
2. Try muscle relaxation techniques
When you feel anxiety rearing its head, or you feel like you’ve crossed the threshold into a full-blown attack, it helps to bring mindful attention to the body. Tightening muscles and short quick breathing are hallmark symptoms of an anxiety attack and can perpetuate the experience. Taking a few minutes to check in with the body and apply progressive muscle relaxation techniques can make a huge difference exactly when you need it.
You can try this technique anywhere – at home, in the office, at a party – but it helps to find a quiet place to sit or lie down.
- Find a comfortable position in a chair, bed, or mat.
- Take a deep breath and let it fall out naturally.
- Bring your attention to the different parts of your body. Understandably, your mind will wander frantically, so whenever that happens, simply bring your attention back to your breath.
- Begin at your toes and feet. Notice how they feel, then tense or clench for a few seconds. As you let your breath fall out, release the tension.
- Move up to your calves and repeat – clench, and release with the breath.
- Move to your upper legs, pelvis, abdomen, midsection, chest, shoulders, neck, jaw, and eyes.
As with breathing, it’s wise to practice this technique before you need it. Following instructions can be challenging, if not impossible, amid a panic attack, so if you already know what to do, you have a much greater chance of effectively coming down.
There is a plethora of muscle relaxation and body scan guided available online. This guided body scan by Jon Kabat Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, is a great start. Try this one or check out some others that you prefer and save them so that you have quick access when you need it.
3. Support systems
Speaking to others who know, love, and support us can have a calming effect on the brain and body. If you feel a panic attack coming on, then consider picking up the phone and calling someone you trust. Let them know that you’re feeling unsafe and panicky and that you’d simply like to talk.
Bear in mind that not everyone is equipped with the emotional balance and maturity to help others through a panic attack, so find a friend or family member who already knows what you experience and who is willing to be there as support.
4. Mantras and affirmations
Mantras and affirmations are phrases and sounds we repeat to ourselves over and over to help us bring our attention to the present moment. They are a means of achieving present moment awareness through mindfulness and can go a long way in helping you calm down from a dizzying anxiety attack.
Since anxiety attacks are often accompanied by catastrophic thoughts and fears, using these mindfulness techniques to quieten the mind and cultivate awareness of the present can stop a panic attack in its tracks.
Helpful mantras and affirmations for anxiety include:
‘I am not my anxiety; I am witnessing anxiety.’
‘I am safe and secure.’
‘Anxiety is not harmful, it’s uncomfortable, and it will pass.’
‘This a reaction to stress, not a reflection of who I am.’
Before you even need to apply anxiety relief techniques, it’s wise to do what you can to prevent panic attacks from happening in the first place.
That doesn’t mean avoiding social settings or staying absent from work, using substances to cope, or isolating yourself from friends and family. What it means is being mindful of how you treat your body and making an effort to keep both mind and body in good health.
Eat healthy, nutritious foods, cut down on or eliminate substance use, exercise regularly, and reach out and connect with those you love regularly. Most importantly, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional if anxiety is impacting your life.
All of these are healthy and positive behaviors that can keep your mind, body, and spirit in good health and make you less likely to fall into the vortex of an attack in the future.
Treatment for anxiety
Anxiety disorders don’t usually go away on their own. It’s best to treat anxiety with a combination of therapy and holistic techniques and with prescription medication (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, benzodiazepines) if appropriate and necessary. Several therapy options are available that are proven effective in reducing symptom severity and ultimately helping those struggling overcome the anxiety disorder. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and EMDR are just some of the evidence-based modalities available for effective anxiety treatment.
Still, while therapy helps, it’s just as important to learn how to manage your anxiety on your own and in day-to-day life when it gets triggered. Therapy will teach you some tools and techniques for self-management, but you can also learn them independently.
The tips, tools, techniques, and advice above are not a substitute for professional medical advice. However, they are tried and true methods of helping your brain and body come down from the height of panic and anxiety and will give you a chance to rest, recollect yourself, and move forward.