How to Stop a Panic Attack

Michelle EllwangerCounseling

Topic: Anxiety

Question: My doctor who has been prescribing anxiety medications for me said that I should find a counselor. I have panic attacks on a daily basis and do not see how talking about them is going to help me feel better.

Michelle’s Take: Your doctor is probably aware of research findings that show counseling can be highly effective for treating panic attacks. But be sure to find a counselor having specific training in anxiety disorder and success working with actual clients. Do not be discouraged by past failure.  Instead, know that there are excellent techniques that really work!

Are you ready to learn something new?

Anxiety disorder is the most common mental health disorder in the United States.  Affecting 40 million adults and costing $42 billion dollars a year in medical costs, it is important to know about different kinds of anxiety disorder.

Clinicians look for specific criteria found in the DSM, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, in order to diagnosis an anxiety disorder.  Clients typically fall into one of the following categories:  panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The good news is research shows an excellent prognosis for anxiety disorder.  The bad news is that only 1/3 of individuals suffering from anxiety seek treatment or find successful coping strategies.

Let’s focus specifically on panic attacks (clinically know as panic disorder) to better understand the panic cycle:

SYMPTOMS   ↔   BEHAVIORS (Panic & Anxiety)   ↔   FEAR THOUGHTS

Notice the two way directionality of the arrows?  It means, regardless of where the cycle begins, each component compounds the panic attack to create more panic.  Knowing what the cycle looks like offers insight into how to stop it as we will look at in just a moment.

To anyone who has experienced a racing heart, shortness of breath, numbness, chest pain and other common symptoms of a panic attack, having someone tell them to “stay relaxed” is counter-productive.  More helpful is learning how to engage in an alternative cognitive activity that breaks this vicious cycle.

A simple and highly effective technique to use with a individual having a panic attack is to hand them a sheet of paper and a pen.  Grab a book or magazine and start reading out loud.  The person having the panic attack is instructed to write down what is dictated.  The person reading should keep a pace slightly faster than the content can be written.

While the person having the attack initially feels incapable of performing a simple request, if they force themselves to listen to the other person’s voice and actively write what is being said, within 2-3 minutes the panic attack resides.  Hand writing returns to normal.  Physiological symptoms, which it is important to note are not life threatening, subside.  Cerebral blood flow returns to normal. All this because the cycle is effectively broken.

With anxiety disorders remember: the treatment goal is to do the opposite of what the disorder wants.

As mentioned earlier, it is important to find a specialist who has specific training and success working with anxiety disorders.  While tension reduction and breathing activities are good to know, they typically are not enough for individuals having a panic attack.  There are other effective techniques that a counselor or therapist might use.  These can include cognitive therapy and exposure therapy.  In many cases, increasing a client’s symptom tolerance can reduce the anxiety to manageable levels.  However, I have found inducing and then stopping a panic attack with the technique described above goes a long way to helping clients take back control.

Anxiety is not always a bad thing.  When the anxiety is real, it can warn us of danger. But individuals suffering from anxiety disorder are responding to irrational fears.  This can be changed.  And when simple changes are made, the world becomes a brighter safer place.

A good workbook you can order while learning how to overcome anxiety is called:  Mastery of Your Anxiety and Panic

Warm regards,


P.S.  Your comment can positively add to this discussion.  Please share how anxiety has effected your life and any tips you have learned.