Are you familiar with the sensation of panic? It’s that sudden rush of fear and overwhelming physical symptoms that can take over your body and mind. If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, you know how debilitating it can be.
Panic attacks are a type of anxiety disorder that can strike at any time, causing intense feelings of terror and physical distress. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 4.7% of people in the United States experience panic attacks at some point in their lives. That’s millions of people who are facing this distressing phenomenon, often without understanding what’s happening to them.
Fortunately, there are effective strategies for managing panic attacks, ranging from simple breathing exercises to professional counseling and medication. In this article, we’ll explore why panic strikes and 5 practical steps to becoming panic free.
Why Panic Strikes
Panic attacks can strike suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving you feeling shaken and disoriented. Regardless of the particular reason why panic starts, the physiological mechanism is the same — your body perceives the threat from inside your body or outside in the environment, which leads to excessive activation of nerve impulses in the brain. Sometimes the danger is reasonable and this activation is helpful. Other times, it’s just a false alarm. But in either case, your body responds with the fight-or-flight response, a natural survival mechanism that prepares you to either face the danger or run away from it (Donahue, J.J., 2020).
Even though the exact reason why panic attacks occur is unclear, research has shown that certain risk factors can increase the likelihood of experiencing one. For example, panic disorder tends to run in families, suggesting a genetic component to the condition (Bonevski, D., & Naumovska, A., 2020). Severe stress and imbalances in certain neurotransmitters can also be considered some of the most common risk factors for panic attacks.
Let’s take a look at the most prevalent theories why panic strikes:
History of trauma or abuse
A history of traumatic experiences can be a common reason for panic attacks. Psychological trauma, such as abuse, neglect, or sudden loss of a loved one, can lead to changes in the brain and nervous system that contribute to panic disorder. Physical trauma can also precipitate panic. According to a 2015 study, anxiety disorders frequently develop after a traumatic brain injury (TBI) (Mallya, S., et al., 2015). Studies also prove that individuals who experienced trauma (e.g., war veterans) are characterized with higher precedence of developing panic disorder, in addition to PTSD (Berrera, T. L. et al., 2013).
Chronic stress is a significant risk factor for the development of panic disorder. Experiencing stress for an extended period can lead to changes in brain function and increase the risk of developing panic disorder. Chronic stress can alter the functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the body’s stress response system. As a result, individuals experience changes in the brain that increase their vulnerability to anxiety and panic.
Significant changes in life
Major life changes, such as moving to a new city, getting married or divorced, or starting a new job, can also trigger panic attacks. Although not everyone who experiences these changes will develop panic disorder, it increases the likelihood of experiencing a panic attack when other stressors are present.
Imbalance of medications
An imbalance of medications can also contribute to the development of panic attacks. Some medications, such as stimulants and antidepressants, can trigger panic attacks as a side effect. This is due to changes in neurotransmitters that are responsible for regulating bodily and mental functions. For example, abrupt changes in medication dosage or the sudden stopping of medication can lead to panic attacks (Moncrieff, J., et al., 2022).
5 Steps to Stop Panic Naturally
Step 1: Recognize and accept the panic attack
The first step to naturally stopping panic is to approach your panic attack with compassion and understanding. Acknowledging your symptoms and accepting them as a natural response to stress can help you take control of your reaction and prevent panic from escalating. That’s how you can release the grip of fear and anxiety, and open up space for healing and self-compassion.
Remind yourself that panic attacks are not dangerous and that you have the power to manage your symptoms and overcome your fears.
Step 2: Inhale, exhale, repeat
It can be challenging to remain calm during a sudden onset of anxiety, but by focusing on slow, deep breathing, you can activate your body’s natural relaxation response. Therefore, the second step is to focus on your breathing. Just try to slow down and deepen your breath intentionally. As a result, you’ll activate your body’s relaxation response and ease the symptoms of anxiety.
Why is this strategy helpful? Because mindful and voluntary breath regulation is linked to parasympathetic and CNS activity, which leads to emotional control and overall psychological well-being (Zaccaro, A. et al., 2018). One effective technique for this is to inhale for 4 counts, exhale for 6 counts, and repeat. This simple exercise can help regulate your breathing, calm your mind, and reduce the intensity of your panic attack.
Step 3: Splash away panic with cold water
It might seem surprising, but splashing your face with cold water can help calm the physical symptoms of a panic attack. It turns out that the sensation of cold water on your face can slow down your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and reduce feelings of anxiety (Kyriakoulis, P. et al., 2021). This helps ground the body, bring it back into itself. I talk about more grounding techniques in the 4S Model, read more about the 4S model here.
Step 4: Unwind your mind and muscles
Practicing relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery, can help reduce tension and promote calmness during a panic attack. Try to remember and challenge your negative thoughts with positive affirmations too. Cognitive restructuring can help reframe the situation and reduce anxiety (Curtiss, J.E., et al., 2021). Listen to my guided meditation series here.
Step 5: Take natural anti-anxiety remedies
And finally, consider keeping some natural remedies on hand as “rescue supports” when panic strikes. For example, one such anti-anxiety remedy is theanine, an amino acid found in tea leaves. Theanine has been shown to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety without causing drowsiness or impairing cognitive function (Hidese, S., et al., 2019). It works by increasing levels of calming neurotransmitters in the brain, such as GABA and serotonin.
Other natural remedies that may provide relief from anxiety include lavender oil, chamomile tea, and valerian root. Incorporating these remedies into your self-care routine can help promote overall wellness and calmness in your daily life. Learn more about the 4 supplements I keep in my medicine cabinet for anxiety in this blog!
As you can see, the reasons for panic attacks vary. But regardless of the specific reason, it is essential to take steps to manage and control panic attacks to prevent them from taking over your life.
Remember that panic attacks are treatable, and you do not have to suffer in silence. If you want to learn more about how to manage anxiety and panic attacks naturally, consider checking out the Anxiety Breakthrough Program, which provides evidence-based strategies for long-term relief without the use of addictive medications.