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7 Ways to Stop a Panic Attack and Ground Your Nervous System

If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you know how overwhelming and frightening they can be. The racing heart, shortness of breath, and feeling of losing control can make you feel like you’re in dire straits. It can even feel as if you are truly dying. Talk about terrifying. The fear of it all sends people into a downward spiral that can be hard to break out of. But the more you can learn techniques to intervene in a panic attack while you’re not in it, the more equipped you will be when it does happen. It’s possible to stop a panic attack and the best way to do that is by learning to ground your nervous system.

Whats the difference between anxiety and panic attacks?

Most people use these phrases interchangeably. And while they can look similar, there are a few key factors that set them apart. With an anxiety attack, there are often triggers that are happening around you that bring on the feelings of anxiety. So anxiety attacks are often situational. For example you find out a loved one passed away or you’re dreading a big important deadline that is quickly approaching. With panic attacks there is no known cause and they come on suddenly and unexpectedly. You could feel relatively peaceful and all the sudden have a panic attack. This is one reason why they are so scary, because there is no trigger or warning. The techniques in this article will work with both anxiety and panic, but we will be putting most of our focus on panic.

What does it mean to ground your nervous system?

When your body is having a panic response to something you are not aware of, it means that the fight or flight part of your brain is kicking in. In order to stop the fight or flight from taking over, you have to get your brain into the present moment. Grounding in the present moment grounds your nervous system. It brings you into a more present, logical mind and snaps you out of the place where the brain seems to be running away with you. The primary way to do that is by focusing on your five senses.

Stop a panic attack

Seven Top Strategies to Stop a Panic Attack and Bring Calm to Your Body and Mind

1. Engage Your Five Senses

Grounding yourself in the present is easiest to do by engaging your five senses because it can help bring your focus back to the present and away from the panic. There are many different ways you can do this. Some of my favorites are holding ice cubes in your hands and focusing on the cold sensation. Rubbing your fingertips together so lightly and focusing on feeling your fingerprints. And this exercise that helps to distract your mind and brings your attention to the here and now which engages all the senses.

Identify and focus on:

  • 5 things you can see (look for small details around you)
  • 4 things you can touch (the fabric of your clothes, the coolness of a glass)
  • 3 things you can hear (distant sounds, the hum of an appliance, voices)
  • 2 things you can smell (if possible, find something with a strong scent)
  • 1 thing you can taste (a piece of gum, a sip of water)

2. Focus on Your Breathing

When panic strikes, your breathing becomes fast and shallow, heightening the sense of panic. By shifting your focus to deep, controlled breathing, you can slow down your heart rate and calm your nervous system. Try the 4-7-8 technique: inhale deeply through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale slowly through your mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat this cycle until you feel more relaxed.

3. Engage the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is a crucial part of the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which governs the ‘rest and digest’ responses, counteracting the fight-or-flight responses controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. As the longest cranial nerve, it extends from the brainstem through the neck and down into the abdomen, influencing the heart, lungs, and digestive tract, among other areas.

Its importance with panic lies in its ability to regulate stress responses and promote a state of calm. Activating the vagus nerve helps lower heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels. It’s like a built-in stress relief system that can reduce the severity of panic attacks and anxiety by signaling the body to relax and de-escalate the fight-or-flight response. Things like deep and slow breathing, mindfulness, and gentle physical exercise can stimulate the vagus nerve, enhancing its calming effects. You can even rub ice on your vagus nerve. Research has shown that this lowers your heart rate and has a calming effect.

4. Use Positive Affirmations

Sometimes it’s hard to stop a panic attack because during the attack, our thoughts can spiral into worst-case scenarios. Counter these thoughts with positive affirmations that are personal to you. Repeating phrases like “I am safe,” “This will pass,” and “I am in control” can help challenge and reduce the power of panic-inducing thoughts, keeping you from the downward spiral.

5. Move Your Body

Physical activity can help burn off the adrenaline generated by a panic attack, helping to restore your body’s equilibrium. If you can, take a brisk walk, stretch, or do some jumping jacks. Movement can release tension from your body and decrease the intensity of a panic attack.

Woman stretching in her livingroom

6. Get Curious

Curiosity and mindfulness are the practice of being fully present in the moment, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, without being overly reactive or overwhelmed. When panic attacks occur, try to observe your thoughts and feelings with curiosity instead of judgment. Acknowledge them as thoughts and feelings, and remind yourself that they will pass. Being hard on yourself just keeps you in a downward spiral. Try self-compassion and curiosity around how your body responds to your feelings and what it needs to feel safe and connected with your inner peace.

7. Use Comfort Items

Our sense of touch can be very calming. This is often why you see little kids stroking their soft blankets or stuffies or adults stroking a cat or dog. Just because you’re an adult, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a soft blanket that brings you comfort of your own. Some people prefer weighted blankets, as a comfort item. There are so many tools out there that we have access to. Don’t be afraid to use them and find what works best for you!

A Few More Important Tips to Stop a Panic Attack

Stop Using Caffeine

Unfortunately, caffeine can seriously impact levels of anxiety or panic. If you are drinking a lot of caffeine it may be a good time to look at cutting it out. While we’re at it, it’s best to check all the substances you may be using and look at how they are affecting your anxiety and panic.

See a Doctor

It’s always good to rule out any medical issues that could be causing the panic attacks. Always make sure to see a doctor and get checked out to be sure there is nothing physically going on that is causing the attacks.

Consult a Therapist

While these strategies can be effective in managing panic attacks, they are part of a broader approach to mental wellness. If panic attacks are a frequent part of your life, seeking support from a mental health professional can provide you with personalized strategies and support to manage and overcome them. The suggestions in this blog are never a replacement for therapy. Reach out and get support today!

Your journey to be able to stop a panic attack and reclaim your calm starts with compassion and care for yourself. Take it one step at a time. Remember that you can’t bully yourself into healing. It’s a good thing to get support and ask for what you need. You deserve it!

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Sarah Monares

Sarah is the founder and creator of The We Spot. She is a Colorado native and she absolutely loves to travel yet, feels blessed to live in a place where she also loves coming back home. She has two awesome kids, and has been married to her hubby for 12 years. Sarah is passionate about helping women make authentic connections with their true selves. She is a counselor and a business and life coach/mentor, as well as a speaker, and author. More than anything she loves belly laughing, coffee, vulnerability, authentic connection, adventure, ice cream, horses, QT with her fam, and seeing women walk in the full power of all they were created to be.

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