Deep inside your brain is a tiny, almond-shaped structure whose primary purpose is to keep you safe. Scanning your environment for threat and setting off a cascade of biological changes that galvanize your survival response, your amygdala can save your life—or make it a constant misery by making you overreact. If you’ve ever wondered how to stop a panic attack, then you’ve already taken the first step in doing so: being mindfully aware and intentionally stimulating an anti-panic process that can put you back in control even in moments you feel most out of control.
A 3-Step Process for How to Stop a Panic Attack
Megan Ross, Trauma Therapy Coordinator at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, knows firsthand about panic and its flooding feeling of overwhelming emotion. For a period of her young adult life, Ross regularly experienced panic attacks. Eventually she discovered a process for reducing and then eliminating the panic cycle. It’s a three-step program that works with the science of your brain to restore (and keep) the power balanced in favor of your cortex (responsible for logical, decision-making, and inhibitory actions), enabling it to tamp down the overactivity of your reptilian (survival and instinct-oriented) brain.
- Develop a conscious intention. To be its most powerful, your cortex needs to be engaged, which happens when you focus. Take some time to understand why your panic attacks happen. Then identify triggers and your resulting behaviors. Make the decision to be aware of these potential circumstances. Ross explains, “Panic happens because a thought has dumped copious amounts of adrenaline into your body’s system, which shifts the emotion and sensory information that the body is receiving…thus triggering that thought again, thus triggering the adrenaline again, thus triggering the emotion. It’s a cycle that the body ends up entering into that affects the mind, the thought, and all sensory information.”
- Become mindfully aware. Extend your intentional focus so that you frequently notice the moment you’re in: Check in with your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and physical changes. Acknowledge what’s happening in your environment, and your response to it. The more attuned you are to your interaction with external (and sensory) stimuli, the more you will be able to interrupt the flood of thought, physical response, and panic. Ross explains: “Interrupting panic happens when you orient back to the environment around you.” The more oriented you are to your environment from the outset, the more easy this will be in panicky moments.
- Slow, pause, and imagine. Any of your five senses can be used to slow down your panic response. Simply noticing what you see, feel, hear, smell, or taste helps the reorientation process. In doing so, it slows down the panic response and allows you to pause the thought/feeling cycle. From there you can intentionally choose to focus on something that feels good to you, either literally available in the moment or in your imagination. This process creates space in the panic cycle and allows your cortex to activate its inhibitory processes. Says Ross, “The goal is to focus your attention on pleasant components of the present moment rather than on the internal thought, adrenaline, and emotion creating the panic.”
Learning How to Stop a Panic Attack Takes Time
Ross likens developing your mindfulness ability to buffing up a muscle: repetition of the strengthening process brings results. Today, Ross is panic-free and describes that she learned how to stop a panic attack through this simple process: “I focused on the simplicity of how much delight I find in a cup of tea. When I felt panic rising, I would imagine choosing my tea, choosing my cup, filling up the kettle with water, the process of the water boiling, taking the teabag out of its pouch, placing it in my cup, and noticing how the string bent over the lip of the mug; once the water was at the right temperature, pouring it into the mug. I focused on being really aware of each step of this process and as I did that through every phase of the panic attack, the panic attack stopped because I had effectively created a mindfulness experience for myself that had a long enough duration and slowed down my system enough that it interrupted that seemingly crushing and perpetual cycle.”
Every single one of us has the ability to learn to be stronger than that old reptile that lives at the bottom of the brain. It takes work, diligence, belief, and dedication, but your more evolved human brain can triumph when it uses one of its most evolutionary human qualities: the power to deliberately make a choice and take an action formulated for a specific result.