How To Stop a Panic Attack: Grounding Techniques

Anyone who experiences panic attacks is looking for a way out. Even the possibility of a panic attack is experienced as stressful. In fact, this “anticipatory anxiety” is sometimes enough to start an attack on its own. Grounding techniques are sometimes used to control anxiety and stop a panic attack.

Grounding techniques work by redirecting attention from internal to external. Anything systematic that can absorb attention can function as a grounding exercise. When you’re anxious, your mind is totally absorbed into fantasies of threat. Maybe you can’t concentrate well enough to decatastrophize, but you can always move your attention onto a completely different subject. When you use the techniques below, actively try to detach from your anxiety by focusing exclusively on the activity.

The Five Senses Poll

My favorite grounding exercise is the “Five Sense Poll.” To completely externalize your attention and potentially stop a panic attack, name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste, if available. I instruct my clients to get up and walk around the room. They should speak out loud, and touch and handle items, if possible. This promotes as much engagement with the external world as possible.

The Five Senses Poll should be done slowly and deliberately. Anxiety will cause you to want to hurry—to get to relief as soon as possible—but going slow proves that you need not obey it. You can take your time, slow down your thoughts and actions. If you find yourself talking or speaking rapidly, consciously break in and practice slowing things down. You can speak aloud and say “Oh, I see that I’m talking too fast, because of my fear of anxiety. Let me see if I can talk really S-L-O-W-L-Y.” The Five Senses Poll can be repeated as many times as necessary. You can even repeat the exercise in different rooms of your house.

Active Grounding Techniques To Stop a Panic Attack

Below are some other grounding exercises from across the internet. In my experience, success with these is rather hit or miss, but some clients do find a favorite and swear by it. You might, too.

  1. Mindful Breathing. Use mindfulness meditation to focus on the breath and relentlessly interrupt any spontaneous thoughts, particularly those related to anxiety, worry, or body signals of anxiety. You can also practice just observing these thoughts and accepting whatever symptoms appear on the way. This is a great way to practice acceptance of the symptoms.
  2. Stretching and exercising are great for relieving anxiety. The mind looks at the body to help determine how anxious it is. If you feel relaxed in your body, you’re likely to feel relaxed in your mind. Exercise is generally viewed to be almost as effective as cognitive therapy, so expect broad positive effects.
  3. Cold water or ice. Cold water is a powerful way to bring your nervous system into the present moment. Cold showers, holding ice cubes, splashing your face, and dipping you hand in cold water, all provide the strong sensation necessary to break your focus on anxiety and worry.
  4. Memory Games. Look at a picture for 15 seconds, memorize as many details as you can. Now, draw the picture from memory. Compare the drawing and picture.
  5. Spelling games. Try spelling words backwards.
  6. Word chains. Think of a word, then think of another word that begins with the letter at the end of the previous word. This game is often played using towns and cities, and it works great for groups.
  7. Listing Games. Try listing as many words as you can think of that begin with the letter A, then the letter B, and so on, at 1 minute per letter.
  8. Mental Math. Square each number, starting with 1. Or, multiply each number by itself plus 1. For use with multiple people, each person makes a simple rule and participants alternate in doing the mental math.
  9. Slow Way Down. When you’re anxious, the sensation of threat makes you speed everything up. Slow things down to half speed and narrate your activities. “Now I’m brushing my teeth…up…down…up…down…now I’m combing my hair…comb…comb…comb.”
  10. Visualization. Choose a familiar place and activity and visualize yourself there. What are you doing, and why? Or, visualize yourself at a quiet place, like a row boat on the middle on a lake on a cool autumn day.
  11. Writing. Try writing a poem or essay, any topic that engages your mind.
  12. Memorization. Memorize the capitals of US states, the elements of the periodic table, the Best Picture winners of the last 50 years. Learn a little with each anxiety episode.

Passive Grounding Techniques To Stop A Panic Attack

Passive grounding techniques entertain you, but probably won’t be as successful at interrupting your anxiety about an impending panic attack.

  1. Listen to music that you enjoy. If you have an collection of songs that you enjoy, why not have a listen? In any activity where you are passively entertained, however, you may find your mind wandering. If so, it might be time to do something else.
  2. Comedy. Watch your favorite comedian. Trade jokes with someone.

A Caution: Grounding and Avoidance

Grounding exercises are often stop panic attacks when anxiety is escalating. They are not effective 100% of the time, but nothing is. Nevertheless, clients are very thankful about learning these techniques, because the terror is so intense and total.

But here’s an important caveat about grounding techniques: Are they avoidance? Avoidance makes your anxiety worse, because avoidance begins with an assumption of fear: “I am afraid, so I must avoid.” The answer to the avoidance question probably depends on your attitude and what you are really learning. If your attitude is “Oh thank God, I managed to avoid that panic attack! Whew!” then that’s negative reinforcement. Rather than change your relationship with anxiety, you learned to avoid the symptoms. The anxiety about anxiety, the attitude of “Ohmigod, here comes the anxiety again, what in the world am I going to do??” remains unchanged. Grounding techniques work in short run, when a panic attack seems imminent, but what happens in the long run?

Grounding techniques need to do more than just service your fears. Rather than learn techniques that sustain avoidance, it’s better to use these techniques to foster a sense of empowerment in regard to your anxiety. Now you have something you can do to feel powerful when symptoms appear. The ultimate solution, however, is to begin to befriend your anxiety. This takes its power away by treating the cause.