7 Ways to Calm Down During a Panic Attack

If you're having an anxiety attack, these 7 tips may help you slow down your breathing and get back on track.

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My first panic attack was just an odd, persistent feeling of not being able to catch my breath. The shortness of breath in my lungs was uncomfortable and frightening but I had no idea what I was suffering from until my coworker pointed it out to me.

"Are you okay?" She asked me, knowing I was reeling from a recent break-up. "I'm having a hard time catching my breath," I told her. I had spent the night before and the greater part of that morning trying to quell the uneasiness in my stomach and to take one full, deep breath. I couldn't do it. My co-worker stood in my office doorway taking stock of my appearance and rapid breathing until she announced, “You’re having a panic attack”. 

It seemed odd. I had never had this kind of reaction to pain, rejection, anger or sadness before. But this was only the beginning. I had no idea how debilitating my panic attacks would become. Sometimes work or personal stress would bring them on but other times they’d happen for no reason at all. 

Often they’re paralyzing, sometimes nauseating, and always unwelcome. However, by trial and error, I have managed to find some ways to cope with this uninvited guest. Here are 7 ways that I deal with my panic attacks:

1) Count to slow your breathing

While having a panic attack, it can feel impossible to catch your breath. However, there are things in my environment I use to help me. For example, if music is playing, I isolate one instrument or use the rhythm of the song to focus my breathing. If I have children with me, and I need to divert them from the fact that I am having a panic attack, I ask them to count with me. Count the leaves, count the trees, cars—anything around me to help slow down my breathing

2) Visit Online Support Groups

Yes, chat rooms still exist! There are chat rooms and groups on Facebook for people who have panic attacks to share relaxation methods and affirmations—many of which I use during bouts with general anxiety and attacks. Of course, this is only useful when I am having a panic attack that doesn’t completely disable me. Finding these spaces before I have an attack helped me to see how they work and determine whether they’d be helpful during an attack. 

3) Phone A Friend

I have friends and family members that know I am prone to panic attacks, and I ask them for help. I didn’t know this could be so effective until I called my sister during an attack and, between gulps of oxygen that I couldn’t keep down, whispered, “Panic attack...can’t breathe..." At this point, she just started counting slowly up to 5 and down from 5. Every time she could hear me not in step with her count, she softly offered encouragement. This was quite relaxing for me. Talking to someone who understands your panic attacks and knows what works can be a great comfort, so I share my plan to combat panic attacks with a trusted loved one.  

4) Break Down Your To-Do List into Manageable Tasks

Again, this will only work if I'm not completely incapacitated. If I am able to write, and am feeling a panic attack coming on as I think about all that I need to do, I try breaking up my to-do list into smaller, manageable tasks. Instead of "clean the house," I may just write, "wash the dishes and sweep the floor," leaving other tasks for another day. I cross tasks off my list when I'm finished and celebrate each small accomplishment to relax. 

READ MORE: 5 Ways to Shorten Your To-Do List

5) Focus on Each Body Part

Wiggle your big toe. Flex your feet. Bend your knees. Swivel your hips. Draw circles with your fingers. Roll your shoulders. Move your tongue across the roof of your mouth. Slowly shake your head from side to side. I start from the bottom or top of my body and focus on the movements that each part can make. Sometimes, I include the internal organs or just focus on the muscles. I acknowledge each tiny process and divert my thoughts until I can calm my breathing. 

6) Try the 54321 Technique

This grounding exercise can help turn your focus away from bad thoughts and instead focus on the things around you. First look around you and count five (5) things you can see. This can be a picture on your wall, a piece of furniture, a car, etc. Next, focus on four (4) things you can feel. Such as the temperature of the room, the wind, or sunlight on your face. Then hone in on three (3) things you can hear near you. For instance the refrigerator humming, a clock ticking, or traffic driving by. Now find two (2) things you can smell around you. Like flowers, the scent of soil, or the spices in your cabinet. Last, find one (1) thing you can taste. Find something that is a comforting taste for you, like a piece of fresh bread, a small candy, or a sip of coffee.

7) Recite a Psalm or Poem

In the middle of an attack, it helps me to recite the sermon the character Baby Suggs gives in Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Beloved. “Hear me now,” she says. “Love your heart. For this is the prize." Sometimes, I recite affirmations from the Psalms or a favorite Bible verse. I alternate between two or more things. If one thing doesn’t work for me the first time, I switch it up with different passages and verses or I give it a try in different positions, like sitting, standing and laying down. ​

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