What to Do After a Panic Attack
It’s hard to know what to do after a panic attack. You’re frightened, exhausted, and you wish the whole mess would just go away. If you just had your first panic attack, then you may be confused about what just happened.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce the likelihood of having another panic attack. These include:
- Managing or ruling out any underlying medical conditions
- Restoring balance to your body/mind/nervous system
- Having the right beliefs and information that lower the fear of panic
- Practicing acceptance and exposure
- Talking to someone who can really hear you
Medical or Stress-Related? Talk to a Doctor
If you haven’t spoken to your doctor about your panic attacks, then it’s worth doing so. A good doctor can help you rule out any medical conditions or medication side effects that are creating or adding to your panic.
There are dozens of medical conditions that can create panic-like symptoms. Examples include hyperthyroidism, cardiovascular diseases, and asthma.
If you don’t know if your panic symptoms have a physical or psychological basis, then you won’t know where to make change.
If you don’t talk to a doctor to rule out any medical conditions, then you won’t know where your panic attacks are coming from. Specifically, you won’t know if they have physical or psychological causes. Not knowing this makes it harder to reduce your panic symptoms because you won’t know where to take action. For example, if a person knows they have a thyroid condition, then they can make the right choices to manage their condition and thereby manage their panic symptoms. On the other hand, if a person’s panic is entirely stress-related, then it wouldn’t be effective for them to go from doctor to doctor searching for medical solutions.1In fact, it could easily be unhelpful! “The most destructive thing you can do when faced with panic attacks is to steadfastly believe that your physical discomfort means that you have a serious physical illness, despite continued professional reassurance to the contrary.” Wilson, R. (2009). Don’t Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks. Harper. p. 15
If your doctor tells you that no medical conditions are involved, and that your panic attacks are entirely stress-related or psychological, then you can focus your approach in that direction.
Reduce the Fear of Fear by Knowing What Happened
One of the reasons a panic attack can be so scary is because you don’t know what’s happening. One minute you feel fine, then the next, you’re panicking. What happened?
A panic attack is an event in which a person has a rapid onset of intense fear, terror, and other uncomfortable panic symptoms. The body responds as if the person were in a life-threatening emergency. These changes happen very quickly, and the speed is part of what’s so surprising and scary about the experience.
It’s important to know that a panic attack is not dangerous. Even though you feel miserable during it, you’re safe. This is important to know because it’s common to become afraid of having panic attacks. The problem is, fearing panic attacks can lead to having more panic attacks. The anticipation and the worry can be stressful, and you might think that you’re in danger when you’re actually not.
Even though a panic attack FEELS dangerous, it’s not. Knowing this can lower the fear of panic that otherwise makes panic stronger.
You can find more statistics about panic attacks here. If you want to go deeper into learning about panic attacks, then I highly recommend Reid Wilson’s book, Don’t Panic. The goal is to learn as much as you need to not be duped or intimidated by panic.
What to Expect After a Panic Attack
It’s normal to be exhausted after a panic attack. Your body just went through an intense experience. Your heart beat quickly, your lungs worked hard, your muscles tensed, and your adrenal glands dumped a ton of adrenaline (a stress hormone) into your bloodstream. That’s a ton of work!
Give yourself time to rest. You may need more sleep than usual. Do whatever you can to restore balance. Consider avoiding substances while you’re re-balancing. Take care of yourself however you know best.
Also, know that it’s not uncommon to have another panic attack in the days to come. This isn’t something to fear or avoid, just something to be aware of. Your body is extra sensitized after a panic attack, and can more easily have another panic response. If you do have another panic attack, do your best to not get extra worried about it. Accept it as just another part of your experience. Panic doesn’t have to be your future.
What to Do After a Panic Attack
There are some important things you can do after a panic attack to make it less likely you’ll have another.
After a panic attack, your body may be over-sensitized. This means that even small things might stress you out, make you nervous, or trigger another panic attack.
When a person brings their body/mind/nervous system from being over-sensitized back to its normal level, they restore balance. When you’re at balance, you’re more resilient to stress and less likely to have another panic attack.
To restore balance, do what you know works best for you. For example, you might:
- Eat healthy
- Sleep and rest
- Move and exercise (after being approved by a doctor)
- Play (to get out energy and activate other brain circuits than fear circuits)
Consider where you may be out of balance in your life. Panic attacks often happen during a time of heightened stress or major life transition. Are there any areas in your life that need some extra attention? Are you putting too much time in one area and neglecting another? Figure out how to bring balance back into the major areas of your life—work, play, rest, relationships, and personal time.
Talk to someone you trust. Panic attacks aren’t something to be ashamed of. It’s a lot more stressful to hold secrets than to be brave and vulnerable and share what’s happening for you. Consider talking to someone who can really hear you. Oftentimes a friend is enough. The act of being heard can bring a surprising amount of relief.
Keeping the Fear from Spreading
A panic attack can set off a wildfire of fear in the mind. If you let the fear spread, then it can claim more and more of your life. For example, you might start avoiding the place where you had the panic attack. Then, you might start avoiding places similar to where you had the panic attack. After a while, you might stop going out at all. This kind of snowball of avoidance is how agoraphobia (fear of leaving home) can develop out of a panic attack.
Therefore, as with a wildfire, it’s important to contain the fear. If you contain the fear, then it can naturally dissipate with time. (On the other hand, if you add more fear on top of it, then there’s a good chance it will continue to grow.)
To contain the fear, consider trying the following:
- Don’t avoid the place or trigger to your panic attack. When you feel ready, visit the place again. If you feel some anxiety, know that it’s normal. Treat it as a chance to practice meeting your fear without falling into panic.
- As much as possible, accept the fear and anxiety symptoms. At the very least, don’t fear and brace against them. Fearing anxiety can play a large role in anxiety disorders.
- Stay engaged in your life, relationships, work, and hobbies. Staying engaged keeps your attention engaged and ahead of you. If you disengage from activities, your attention can turn inwards as you anticipate and worry about having another panic attack.
- Correct any fear-inducing beliefs. For example, make sure that you really believe that panic attacks aren’t dangerous. Speaking to a doctor to rule out any medical conditions can help bring confidence that they are safe.
- “What if I have another panic attack?” Consider taking an attitude of, “All the better to practice not getting caught up in it.” Practice acceptance, exposure, mindfulness, and right attitude.
Above all, don’t resort to avoidance. Avoidance may give you immediate relief, but can backfire very quickly. Giving up places and activities to reduce anxiety is like making sacrifices to the angry god of panic—no sacrifice is enough, and more will always be demanded.
Conclusion – What to Do After a Panic Attack
Despite being so scary and confusing, panic attacks are very treatable. They are not dangerous.
If you haven’t ruled out any medical conditions with a doctor, then it’s important to speak with your doctor to do so. Knowing if your panic symptoms have a physical or psychological basis helps you to make the right choices.
If your panic attacks are psychological – meaning they have to do with your thoughts, emotions, and stress-levels – then there is a lot you can do to reduce the chance of having more panic attacks.