How to (Really) Stop a Panic Attack: What You Must Know

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Last updated April 5, 2023.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

Popular remedies for panic attacks are usually unhelpful. Get details on two lesser-known techniques that stop panic attacks effectively anytime, anywhere.

Every year, an estimated 6 million Americans have a panic attack

Unfortunately, the prevailing online advice about panic attack remedies is trite and seems like it’s written by someone who’s never had one.

So, we did our research and found some little-known strategies that really work.

They might even change your perspective on panic attacks for good.

What Is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is characterized by an intense feeling of fear that occurs in the absence of any real danger. 

Panic attacks often seem to come out of the blue, with no clear trigger.

If you have panic attacks repeatedly, you are said to have a panic disorder.

Have you ever experienced a smoke alarm going off in your home, but there was no smoke or fire?

Similarly, your body can experience a false alarm in the form of a panic attack.

Your body has an alarm system, the sympathetic nervous system.

When facing perceived danger, the sympathetic nervous system triggers the stress response.

Your heart starts racing, your breath becomes faster and shallow, and blood moves away from your organs to your limbs, getting you ready to either flee or stay and face the danger.

And, just as the too-sensitive smoke alarm emits a piercing sound when there is no fire or smoke, people with panic disorder experience the flight-or-fight response when there is no obvious danger.

A strange thing about panic attacks is that they are actually harmless.

But they sure don’t feel that way.


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Causes of Panic Attacks

No one knows for sure what causes panic attacks, but they usually happen against a background of extreme stress.

Typical stressors are major life changes, such as starting a new job, a change in marital status, or the death of a loved one.

Once the stress response is initiated, breathing becomes fast and shallow, and not enough blood and oxygen reach the brain.

This, in turn, can cause hyperventilation (overbreathing).

This causes carbon dioxide levels in the blood to decrease which may be responsible for many of the symptoms of panic attacks. 

There may also be a genetic component since the occurrence of panic attacks often runs in families.

Health Conditions That Contribute to Panic

Panic attacks can sometimes be caused, in part, by underlying medical conditions.

Low blood sugar or an overactive thyroid can exacerbate anxiety and increase the tendency to panic.

So can the use of recreational stimulants, including seemingly innocuous caffeine

Related on Be Brain Fit —
15 Links Between Caffeine and Anxiety

On the other side of that coin, withdrawal from certain substances, including prescription drugs, recreational drugs, and caffeine, can trigger panic.

Mitral valve prolapse, a condition that occurs when a heart valve doesn’t close properly, has been linked to panic disorder

If you suspect that any of these conditions are contributing to your panic, talk to your doctor.

How to Know If You’re Having a Panic Attack

Before you can stop a panic attack, you need to know for sure if that is what’s happening to you.

Your first-ever panic attack is particularly terrifying.

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Panic attacks usually come out of nowhere and the first one may make you think you’re dying.

You may head to the hospital emergency room thinking that you are having a heart attack.

But you’ll be sent home after being told that you “only” had a panic attack.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

Everyone experiences panic attacks a little differently, and not every panic attack is exactly like another.

There are many emotional and physical symptoms associated with panic attacks.

And, while you won’t necessarily experience all of these symptoms, the emotional symptoms of panic attacks can be summed up in one word — fear.

During a panic attack, you’ll feel terrified that you are losing control, going out of your mind, or possibly even going to die.

Some people experience feelings of unreality or depersonalization.

Physical symptoms of panic attacks include: 

  • chest pain
  • chills or hot flashes
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • numbness or tingling
  • pounding heart
  • shortness of breath
  • sweating
  • tightness in chest, throat, or stomach
  • trembling

You’ll often hear the terms panic attack and anxiety attack used as though they are distinctly different conditions, but they’re simply different names for the same set of symptoms.

Panic Attack or Heart Attack? How to Tell

There’s a lot of overlap between the symptoms of a panic attack and those of a heart attack.

The differences between the two are subtle and, when you are in the throes of panic, it’s very hard to tell the distinctions.


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It’s particularly hard to know the difference if you’ve never experienced either before.

A racing heart, shortness of breath, and tightness in the chest are characteristic of both.

The American Heart Association lists these symptoms of a heart attack: 

  • Discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.

Women are more likely than men to experience shortness of breath, nausea, and back or jaw pain as heart attack symptoms.

Heart attacks are often (but not always) brought on by strenuous physical exertion, anger, or extreme stress.

Panic attacks usually strike with no obvious trigger.

Symptoms of panic disorder often start in a person’s late teens or early adulthood, whereas heart attacks typically occur much later in life.

The average age for a first-time heart attack is 66 for men and 70 for women. 

Another big difference is that the symptoms of a panic attack are short-lived, usually peaking within ten minutes

Don’t take chances: If you have any concerns that you may be experiencing a heart attack, regardless of your age, call 911 or your local emergency response number.

How to Stop a Panic Attack: The Usual (Suspect) Suggestions

When I started looking online at the advice for panic attacks, I got really frustrated.

Most of what I found was not very helpful.

One expert advises “the very best thing you can do is actually nothing.” 

Other typical suggestions are to control your breathing by taking deeps breaths or breathing into a paper bag.

But deep breathing can sometimes make panic symptoms even worse.

Another oft-recommended technique is to consciously relax your muscles.

But, as anyone who has had a panic attack can attest, it’s virtually impossible to will yourself to relax in the middle of a panic attack.

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Other suggestions focus on managing your thoughts, such as picturing a happy place, thinking positive thoughts, or reciting a positive mantra such as “I am safe” or “This feeling will pass and I’ll be OK.”

And, while learning to manage anxious thoughts is an excellent long-term strategy, it’s not much use in the middle of a panic attack — there is no reasoning with yourself at a time like that!

Another popular piece of advice is to distract yourself by calling a friend, squeezing a stress ball, or even doing jumping jacks.

And, of course, doctors often prescribe anti-anxiety medications.

But these drugs are highly addictive and have many unwanted side effects.

If these suggestions work for you, that’s great.

However, I’ve found two lesser-known techniques that actually work very well at stopping a panic attack.

These are both easy to learn and you can start using them today.

How to Stop a Panic Attack With Tapping

Hundreds of clinical studies have found acupuncture to be an effective treatment for dozens of conditions, including anxiety. 

Tapping, also called Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), is a form of acupressure that uses fingertip taps instead of needles.

Tapping might seem unusual to you, but there’s evidence that it works by turning off the stress response, reducing levels of cortisol, balancing neurotransmitters and hormones, reducing muscle tension, and altering brainwave activity

Watch the Video

Watch this YouTube video to see veteran EFT coach Julie Schiffman demonstrate a tapping sequence that you can use to calm down a panic attack immediately.

I urge you to practice this technique along with this video now, so that the next time you have a panic attack, you can perform this tapping sequence automatically.

Benefits of Tapping for Panic Attacks

There are many compelling reasons to try tapping for panic attacks.

It’s easy to learn and can be helpful regardless of the underlying cause of your panic.

You can do it anywhere, even if you’re in public.

Don’t worry about looking a little odd.

It’s possible that people around you will understand what you’re doing.

There is a growing list of famous people, including world-class athletes, who use tapping to overcome fear, stress, and achieve peak performance.

And lastly, it works.

According to EFT founder Gary Craig, tapping has an extremely high success rate of around 80%. 

Working with a certified EFT practitioner increases the success rate to an impressive 95%.

The Best Breathing Exercise to Stop a Panic Attack

Alternate nostril breathing is a yoga breathing technique that goes by the Sanskrit name of Nadi Shodhana Pranayama.

At first, this may seem odd, but most people breathe through just one nostril at a time anyway, cycling between dominant nostrils

Research shows that consciously controlling the breath in this way reduces stress and anxiety by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for eliciting the relaxation response, bringing the body back into balance after the stress response has been triggered. 

Much like tapping, alternate nostril breathing gives you a way to actively halt a panic attack and can be done anytime you start to feel panicky. 

And, unlike typical breathing exercises, this one shouldn’t make your panic worse.

Here’s how to perform alternate nostril breathing.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Push your thumb or one finger on the side of one nostril, closing it off.

Inhale slowly through the open nostril for a count of 5.

Now, pinch the other nostril and breathe out slowly.

Repeat, starting with the opposite nostril this time.

Do as many rounds as you find helpful.

woman using alternative nostril breathing
Woman practicing alternative nostril breathing to stop a panic attack.

Where to Find Professional Help for Panic Attacks

Of course, everyone is different and no one technique can be guaranteed to work for everyone.

If you’ve failed to conquer panic attacks on your own or feel that they are interfering with your life in a significant way, it may be time to seek professional help.

While the standard medical treatments for anxiety and panic are anti-anxiety drugs and cognitive behavioral therapy, these are not your only options.

If you aren’t sure where to turn, you’ll find information on various types of mental health practitioners with a strong emphasis on drug-free treatments in our Mental Health Resources Guide.

You may want to consider working with a certified EFT practitioner.

You can find a certified EFT practitioner in your area, or locate one who sees patients remotely, using these international databases:

Also, you’ll find dozens of articles on Be Brain Fit to help you manage stress and anxiety

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