How to Stop Panic Attacks: Just Breathe!

How to stop a panic attack? What is a panic attack? Most of the time, people don’t even know they’re having one. You may think it’s a heart attack. Your heart is racing, you’re sweating like you’re running twenty kilometers per hour – while you’re just sitting on the couch. Of course, it’s a heart attack! And then you go to the doctor… turns out it’s ‘just’ a panic attack.

What if you’re going crazy?

Or maybe you’re like me, and you don’t think it’s a heart attack, but rather that you’re going crazy. I thought this for about two years when I was in my twenties. I didn’t talk to anyone about it and was as stressed as a turkey before Christmas.

Finally, at age twenty-six, I learned what a panic attack is. And I’m going to explain that to you now. Then I’ll share with you a breathing exercise that you can do to instantly calm your body and mind.

Watch my YouTube video for more info and a demonstration:

The effect of stress: why we’re still cavemen

Although our society is drowning in high-tech devices, the human apparatus still works as if we skipped all of the evolution since the Ice Age. And that in itself is not so bad, because we have the best smart device there is. You just need to read the manual.

For example, we all have a built-in alarm system (the sympathetic nervous system), which we inherited from our prehistoric grandparents. This alarm system activates our fight-or-flight response as soon as we think we are in danger or experience stress. It causes your blood supply to go to your big muscles and releases large amounts of energy so you can quickly run away if a wild animal is chasing you.

Now, we haven’t lived in caves for a long time (most of us, anyway), but our alarm system still works the same. The beasts we have to fight off in the modern world are mainly deadlines, emails, impatient clients or bosses, traffic jams, flying COVID-19 viruses, etc.

You can think of your alarm system as a car running stationary: it’s always on in the background so that at any given moment you can race away as fast as possible – or knock someone off the road.

Sympathetic vs. parasympathetic nervous system (gas pedal vs. handbrake)

Luckily, we also have a ‘handbrake’ (the parasympathetic nervous system). This is turned on when you feel safe. It promotes your digestion, it makes your heart rate slow down, and it lets your body recover.

Now, what happens when you are under constant stress for months or years? Well, stress makes you think that you are not safe. This keeps your alarm-system overactive, so your body and mind don’t have as much time to recover and restore. This, in turn, can lead to illness, either physically or mentally.

Symptoms of stress

So one of the emotional symptoms of too much stress, or an alarm-system that’s been overactive, is a panic attack. Other symptoms include anxiety, loss of clarity, mood changes, agitation and anger, loss of memory, and black-outs.

Physical symptoms include sweating, tense muscles (esp those in your neck, jaw, shoulders and belly), chest breathing (instead of belly breathing), high blood pressure, sleeping problems, digestive problems, headaches, and so on. 

How to stop panic attacks: take away the WHY

Now, an easy trick to reduce panic is to take away the WHY. Imagine that you are on a safari in Tanzania. You step out of the jeep for a moment to take a selfie with a baobab tree. You turn around and – holy shit! – there is a lion in front of you. Can you imagine what happens? 

Your heart starts beating faster, you get hot, you feel dizzy, your head turns red, you start sweating, you start breathing faster, you get nauseous and your head starts pounding. Your body goes into the fight-or-flight mode and is pumped full of adrenaline and cortisol. Your blood supply goes to your big muscles so you can attack the lion or run away as fast as you can (good luck with that)

All of these fight-or-flight responses are similar to the physical symptoms of a panic attack. In terms of emotional symptoms, there are some similarities: panic and the fear of dying (which is pretty normal at the time), but other than that, there are no irrational thoughts and you don’t think that you’re going crazy. 

This is because you don’t worry about WHY of your panic. Because the reason is obvious: there’s a hungry, adult Simba standing front of you.

But what if you’re just watching TV? Then the same things can happen physically as in the case where you encounter a lion, only there is no lion. Therefore, you don’t understand why you are having the panic attack. You start worrying about the panic. Why am I feeling this way? Why is this happening? What if my friends see me like this? 

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This is called the panic loop

These kinds of thoughts only make the symptoms worse. So, you can end up in a vicious cycle of anxiety, where you continue to feel anxiety, and panic attacks become more frequent. You become afraid that you will have a panic attack at a party or in the supermarket. This makes you prefer to stay at home. After all, who needs friends when you have Netflix, right? But ignoring or avoiding situations makes life unnecessarily hard. And it makes the panic worse.

So to alleviate a panic attack, it helps to eliminate the WHY of the panic attack. The reason is an overactive alarm-system. By remembering that every time, you can keep your symptoms from getting worse. 

Remember that panic is a symptom of anxiety. It is a physical response to stress: an emotion. There’s nothing weird going on and you’re not going crazy. Your alarm system is just on for too long, so you need to put on the brake. You do this by relaxing.

Belly breathing exercise to stop a panic attack

Now there are several ways for you to relax, depending on what works for you. But one, very effective way to consciously activate your rest-and-digest mode, your handbrake, is with the breath. 

So here’s an easy exercise. First of all, do this exercise while sitting down on the floor. Never practice breathing exercises standing up or somewhere close to the water.

Go sit in a comfortable position, then place your right hand on your belly and your left hand on your chest. Close your eyes. Now breathe into your right hand, letting your belly swell up like a balloon, but gently. Don’t force it. Breathe out and let your belly sink back. Your left hand, your chest, stays still. Focus your attention on the movement of your belly, rather than on your breath. Feel how your hand moves forward and backward as you inhale and exhale. 

This is called belly breathing. A nice way to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and relax. You can do this as long as you like.