“All of us at anxietycentre.com have experienced debilitating anxiety. But we’ve also overcome it and returned to normal and lasting health. Because we know the hardship anxiety unwellness can cause, we are committed to helping others, with over 30 years of service.” - Jim Folk, President, anxietycentre.com

10 Best Ways to Stop Anxiety Attacks

Marilyn Folk BScN medical reviewer
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: May 11, 2019

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Research has found that almost everyone will experience an anxiety attack at least once during their lifetime. People who behave more apprehensively than the general population often experience many anxiety attacks. Some anxious people, approximately 3 percent, develop panic attack disorder (PAD).

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), defines panic attacks as: A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.[1]

Panic becomes a disorder when panic attacks are frequent and interfere with a normal lifestyle. More specifically, the DSM-5 describes the criteria for panic disorder as panic attacks that must be associated with longer than 1 month of subsequent persistent worry about: (1) having another attack or consequences of the attack, or (2) significant maladaptive behavioral changes related to the attack. To make the diagnosis of panic disorder, panic attacks cannot directly or physiologically result from substance use (intoxication or withdrawal), medical conditions, or another psychiatric disorder. Other symptoms or signs may include headache, cold hands, diarrhea, insomnia, fatigue, intrusive thoughts, and ruminations.[1]

Anxiety attacks are often characterized as experiencing:

The above anxiety attack symptoms can be accompanied by:

You can experience one, many, or all of the symptoms listed above. Just because you aren’t experiencing many or all of the above symptoms doesn’t mean you aren’t having an anxiety attack. Each person can have a unique symptom set during an anxiety attack.

The above list of anxiety and panic attack symptoms is not exhaustive. Visit our anxiety symptoms page for a more comprehensive list of anxiety disorder signs and symptoms complete with descriptions of what they feel like and how to stop them.

Even though anxiety attacks can be powerful physical, psychological, and emotional experiences, they occur for specific reasons. Understanding these reasons can put you in control of anxiety attacks rather than it seeming like anxiety attacks control you. Learning to control anxiety attacks can set you free from them and their symptoms.

Anxiety attacks

Anxiety: A state of apprehension, uncertainty, and fear resulting from the anticipation of a real or imagined threat.

In this regard, anxiety is caused by behaving in an apprehensive manner, such as worrying, imagining the worst, and fearing the worst.

When we behave apprehensively, the body secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots to bring about specific physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a threat—to either fight with or flee from it. This survival reaction is the reason why it’s often referred to as the fight or flight response, the emergency response, or the fight, flight, or freeze response (some people freeze when they are afraid like a “deer caught in headlights”).[2][3][4]

The Stress Response is designed to "supercharge" the body so that it is better equipped to deal with a threat. This supercharge "boost" is a vital part of our survival mechanism. Consequently, the stress response is our ally when in real danger.

Whenever we believe we are in danger, the body activates a stress response. This is how the survival mechanism works.

As one of our anxiety clients noted, there are no freebies – meaning that the body ALWAYS produces a stress response when we think we are in danger. Just because we don’t feel the effects of a stress response doesn’t mean one didn’t occur. The stronger the response, the more we feel them.

If a person isn’t familiar with how the body’s emergency survival system works or how it is triggered, the stress response and the changes it causes can seem threatening and even frightening. This is one of the reasons many people fear anxiety attacks…because they don’t understand them or know they can control them.

The degree of stress response is directly proportional to the degree of perceived threat.

As the degree of stress response increases, so does the intensity and magnitude of the changes the stress response brings about.

For example, if you conclude that a situation or circumstance isn’t going to be too dangerous, your body will produce only a small degree stress response, which results in slight physiological, psychological, and emotional changes. On the other hand, if you believe a situation or circumstance could be very dangerous, your body will produce a high degree stress response and powerful physiological, psychological, and emotional changes.

Again, the degree of stress response and its associated physiological, psychological, and emotional changes are directly proportional to the degree of perceived threat. The more threatening the perceived threat seems, the more powerful the stress response.

Visit our “Stress Response” article for a more comprehensive description of the stress response and the many ways it can affect the body.

What is an anxiety attack?

An anxiety attack is a high degree stress response activated by either overly apprehensive behavior (worrying/fearing something really bad may happen) or by the involuntary action of a chronically stressed body.

In other words, anxiety attacks have two main causes:
Voluntary anxiety attacks: When we worry something terrible might happen and the body responds with a high degree stress response.

Involuntary anxiety attacks: When the body activates a high degree stress response all by itself due to the adverse effects of chronic stress.

Voluntary Anxiety Attacks:

Most anxiety attacks are voluntary anxiety attacks caused by overly apprehensive behavior: believing something horrible is about to happen, which activates a high degree stress response. Once the high degree stress response is activated, the physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that result can be powerful. These powerful changes, even though they are our ally when in real danger, can seem like something ominous is happening, which many anxious people react to with more fear…which activates another stress response, and so on.

Reacting to anxiety attacks in a fearful way will keep anxiety attacks going.

In a sense, anxious personalities become afraid of what the high degree stress response feels like and/or believe that it is the harbinger of something dangerous, which causes more stress responses. This is often the scenario that sets up Panic Attack Disorder: becoming afraid of the feelings of a high degree stress response and believing they are uncontrollable.

In this regard, fear set off the initial anxiety attack and fearing the sensations associated with the anxiety attack activates more stress responses. We call this the fear cycle:

voluntary anxiety attacks fear cycle

Voluntary anxiety attacks account for the majority of all anxiety attacks.

Involuntary Anxiety Attacks

The body has several systems that automatically (involuntarily) monitor and regulate each other moment by moment. When the body is healthy and not overly stressed, it does a good job of keeping all of its systems working normally.

When the body becomes chronically stressed, however, it can sometimes mismanage systems, which can cause the body to behave erratically and more involuntarily than normal.[5][6] This erratic and more involuntary behavior can cause the body to involuntarily activate the stress response.[7] The great majority of “out-of-the-blue” anxiety attacks are caused by this involuntary mismanagement.

Experiencing an involuntary panic can be unnerving. If a person doesn’t understand why the body produced an involuntary panic attack, he could react to it with more anxiety, which can cause more anxiety attacks.

As we mentioned earlier, reacting with fear to anxiety attacks is the most common reason why anxiety attacks persist.

Much more could be said. We explain anxiety attacks in more detail on our anxiety attack symptoms page. And, we’ve gone into even more detail about anxiety attacks, their cause, and how to stop them in chapters 3, 5 and 6 in the Recovery Support area of our website.

Based on the above, here are the 10 Best Ways to Stop Anxiety Attacks:

1. Understand anxiety attacks and that you CAN stop them anytime you want.

Knowledge is power…and especially when it comes to understanding anxiety and anxiety attacks. The more you know, the better off you are.

For instance, understanding the physiological, psychological, and emotional components that contribute to anxiety attacks can remove the mystery about them and what they can do. Removing the mystery can eliminate the potential to scare you.

When you understand what anxiety attacks are; what causes them; how the body responds - the many physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that can occur and why; the stages of the stress response; how stress affects the body; and how you can stop them anytime you want eliminates their threat. Eliminating the threat eliminates a struggle with anxiety attacks.

Becoming unafraid of anxiety attacks is the surest way to stop and prevent them. Again, for more information, see our “anxiety attack symptoms” section, or for more in-depth information, become a member of our Recovery Support area.

2. Stress hormones are limited in what they can do.

Even though anxiety attacks can feel powerful, stress responses and the hormones they produce are limited in what they can do. While they can prepare the body for emergency action, stress responses can’t cause you to snap and lose your mind, can’t cause a mental breakdown, can’t cause you to do something you don’t want to do, don’t last forever, and will end.

Again, for more information on the stress response and its many actions, see our “anxiety attack symptoms” section or our “Stress Response” section.

3. You have the power to end anxiety attacks anytime you want.

Since anxiety attacks are caused by specific reasons, we can end them by addressing those reason. For instance, voluntary anxiety attacks are caused by overly apprehensive behavior, such as worry and imagining the worst. If you imagine you are in grave danger, your body will respond as if it actually is in danger.

Moreover, if you think you are safe and in a peaceful environment, your body will also respond as if it actually is.

Therefore, you control how your body responds by the types of thoughts you think. If you want to feel calm and relaxed, think calm and relaxed thoughts. Then, wait for your body to respond accordingly.

Keep in mind that once stress hormones are in the bloodstream, they will have an effect until your body uses them up or expels them. Similar to how it takes time for the body to burn off the effects of caffeine, which is a stimulant, it will also take time for the body to burn off the effects of a stress response.

But if you remain calm and patient in spite of how stimulated your body feels, it will use up the stress hormones and you’ll gradually feel better again.

4. Relaxed diaphragmatic breathing

Slow, relaxed diaphragmatic breaths cause the body to trigger a natural tranquilizing effect.[8] This tranquilizing effect counters the effects of the stress response. As you relax diaphragmatic breathe, your body will calm down, which will end an anxiety attack.

Relaxed diaphragmatic breathing is slowing down your breathing, taking in a little more air than normal, and breathing from your diaphragm (stomach). This type of breathing offsets the more rapid shallow breathing typically caused by an anxiety attack. Relaxed diaphragmatic breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve, which also works to calm the body.

Avoid deep breathing. Many sources recommend deep breathing to end anxiety attacks. Unfortunately, deep breathing has been linked to hyperventilation, which can cause anxiety attacks.[9] So, we recommend relaxed diaphragmatic breathing rather than deep breathing because it still activates the body’s natural tranquilizing effect but doesn’t cause hyperventilation.

5. Reframe anxious behavior and stop scaring yourself

As we mentioned, anxiety attacks are mostly caused by apprehensive behavior – scaring ourselves with worry and imagining the worst. Therefore, being afraid of anxiety attacks is one of the most common reasons why anxiety attacks sustain…and why people develop Panic Attack Disorder. Since fear is the most common reason why anxiety attacks occur and persist, refusing to scare yourself removes the main reason anxiety attacks occur.

When you stop scaring yourself with worry and imagining the worst, you eliminate the most common cause of anxiety attacks. Yes, you can learn to stop scaring yourself. This is the second most powerful way to eliminate anxiety attacks.

For example, rather than thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is awful. What if I completely lose it?” Use more affirmative language such as, “Ok, this doesn’t feel good right now. But it’s just my body’s emergency response and it will end as I stop scaring myself.”

Or, instead of thinking, “This is awful. I can’t stand it!” Reframe that thought to, “This is what a high degree stress response feels like. Many people go to great lengths to feel this way. It’s a normal part of the body’s survival mechanism. It’s not dangerous and I don’t have to be afraid of it.”

Or, instead of thinking, “What’s causing this horrible feeling? What if I’m dying or having a complete breakdown?” Reframe to, “This feeling can feel strong, but it’s not dangerous. All bodies react this way when we think we are in danger or are overly stressed. It’s not something to be concerned about. I'll keep myself calm and it will end when the body uses up the remaining stress hormones. Then, I'll feel fine again.”

The stress response is our ally not our enemy.

Keep in mind that the Stress Response is our ally when in real danger. It gives the body an “emergency boost” so that we are better equipped to deal with the threat.

Therefore, the strong feelings of anxiety and panic are not our enemy. So, we want to embrace those strong feelings recognizing that the body is responding the way it is supposed to if we think we are in danger. The feelings aren’t the source of the danger but merely the reaction to it.

Taking charge of your thinking by reframing anxious thoughts puts you in control of your body’s emergency system. As you become proficient at taking control, you can completely shut down anxiety attacks any time you want. More importantly, by becoming proficient at reframing anxious thinking, you can even stop them starting.

6. Calm yourself

Worrying and imagining the worst, examples of apprehensive behavior, activate the Stress Response. Calming yourself and imagining peace and contentment activate the Rest Response – the body’s response that works in opposition to the Stress Response.

Imagining calming thoughts shuts off the mechanism that causes anxiety attacks. So calming yourself down ends the stress response. Then it’s just a matter of time until the body uses up or expels the remaining stress hormones and you’ll feel fine again.

The more you calm yourself, the faster the anxiety attack can end and the sooner you’ll feel better. Keep in mind that the physiological, psychological, and emotional changes resulting from a minor stress response last for approximately a few to ten minutes. A high degree stress response can last for twenty to thirty minutes or more. You want to keep yourself calm until the body recovers from the active stress response. This means you may feel the physiological, psychological, and emotional changes in the meantime, but that they will all end as the body recovers from the active stress response.

Becoming proficient at calming yourself is another sure way to end, control, and prevent anxiety attacks.

7. Relax your body

Relaxing the body shuts off the stress response since the body can’t go in both (arousal/relaxed) directions at the same time. The more relaxed you make your body, the faster the body uses up and expels stress hormones, which will bring an end to the feelings associated with an active stress response.

Relaxing the body also offsets muscle tension caused by the stress response.

You can relax the body by making it feel as loose and heavy as possible. For instance, if you are sitting or lying down, make your body as relaxed, loose, and heavy as you can. Making your body feel loose and heavy also activates the Rest Response, which counteracts the effects of the Stress Response. Then, it’s only a matter of time until you feel better.

8. Distract yourself

As we mentioned earlier, most anxiety attacks are caused and fueled by thinking anxiously. Distracting your attention can prevent anxious thinking. As you prevent anxious thinking, you also prevent voluntary anxiety attacks.

There are lots of ways to distract yourself, such as counting, calling a friend, organizing materials on or in your desk, playing a game, reading a book, going for a walk, and so on. Anything that distracts your mind away from anxious thinking will indirectly end stress responses and anxiety attacks. The better you are at distracting yourself, the faster anxiety attacks end.

You might also want to distract yourself with more sensory experiences, such as with cold water, ice, strong tastes, touch, and so on. Strong sensory experiences are more distracting. Anything that takes your mind away from the sensations associated with the active stress response and thinking anxiously will assist in ending anxiety attacks.

9. All panic attacks end!

No matter how powerful the anxiety attack, it will end. We can end them faster by doing some or all of the above. Nevertheless, all anxiety attacks end. It’s only a matter of time.

No one experiences unending anxiety attacks even though sometimes it can feel that way. Riding out the anxiety attack knowing it will end can help you remain calm, which also shuts off the stress response and anxiety attack.

10. High degree emergency responses are supposed to feel strong.

Recognize your body is doing what it’s supposed to in response to thinking you are in danger (survival mechanism and the stress response). Many people go to great lengths to experience the rush of the stress response (skydiving, bungee jumping, other dangerous and thrilling activities). So a high degree stress response isn’t a bad thing, but the body’s temporary emergency survival mechanism in action. We can shut it off anytime by using the above strategies.

Even though an anxiety attack may feel like it is out of control, it actually isn’t. Using the above strategies can put you in control…and every time. While it may take courage and practice initially, all of us can control anxiety and anxiety attacks. Knowing how to control anxiety attacks, and becoming practiced at it, eliminates them.

Moreover, even though you may feel you are in danger from an anxiety attack, you aren’t. An anxiety attack is a common response to believing you are in danger, but not the actual cause of being in danger.

Panic Attack Disorder (Panic Disorder) is one of the easiest anxiety disorders to eliminate when you know how. No one needs to suffer needlessly. You can eliminate anxiety attacks naturally by knowing how and through practice.

Chapter 6 in the Recovery Support area contains many sections on how to overcome Panic Disorder, as well as how to extinguish many of the fears often associated with anxiety attacks.

Don’t suffer needlessly! You can overcome anxiety and panic attacks. We’ve all done it. Countless members and therapy clients have done it. So can you! It is within your ability.

If you are struggling with anxiety and panic attacks, and feel you’ve done everything you can but still aren’t successful, we recommend connecting with one of our recommended anxiety disorder therapists. They are well trained and experienced in helping people overcome stubborn Panic Attack Disorder.


The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources:


REFERENCES:

1. DA, Katerndahl. "Infrequent and limited-symptom panic attacks." Journal of Nervous Mental Disorders, May 1990, Infrequent and limited-symptom panic attacks.

2. Selye H. Endocrine reactions during stress. Anesthesia & Analgesia. 1956;35:182–193. [PubMed]

3. "Understanding the Stress Response - Harvard Health." Harvard Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.

4. "The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis." DUJS Online. N.p., 03 Feb. 2011. Web. 19 May 2016.

5. Teixeira, Renata Roland, et al. “Chronic Stress Induces a Hyporeactivity of the Autonomic Nervous System in Response to Acute Mental Stressor and Impairs Cognitive Performance in Business Executives.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4373764/.

6. Yaribeygi, Habib, et al. “The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review.” EXCLI Journal, Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors, 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579396/.

7. Hannibal, Kara E., and Mark D. Bishop. “Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4263906/.

8. Ma, Xiao, et al. "The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults." Frontiers in Psychology, 6 June 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/

9. Meuret, Alicia, et al. "Hyperventilation in Panic Disorder and Asthma: Empirical Evidence and Clinical Strategies." International Journal of Psychophysiology, 25, May 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2937087/


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