This 16-Second Trick Can Help You Stop a Panic Attack

Updated: Nov. 13, 2020

People in the military and police officers practice tactical breathing to use under extremely stressful situations. You can use it to manage anxiety and help stop panic attacks.

It comes on suddenly, at random or as the result of days of stress. You feel your heart pounding, your pulse racing, your hands shaking, your head throbbing. You try to think of anything else but your thoughts are caught in a spiral of anxiety and fear. And you just can’t catch your breath. You’re having a panic attack. While they’re not at all pleasant, panic attacks are very common and there are things you can do to stop them, says James Marrugo, PhD, a psychotherapist in Broomfield, Colorado, who specializes in anxiety and panic disorder.

The first step to stopping a panic attack is to recognize what it is, as opposed to thinking you’re having a heart attack or an aneurysm. But even when you learn to recognize the symptoms of a panic attack and you know you need to calm down, it can be really hard to do in the moment. When you’re in the midst of a panic attack, getting out of it can seem impossible. It’s not. One simple way to regain control is through regulated breathing, Marrugo says.

“When anxiety levels are high, breathing becomes shallow which can cause or worsen a panic attack,” he explains. Teaching your body to quit hyperventilating and to breathe deeply can calm you, he says. To do this, you need to use your diaphragm, the muscle located between your thoracic and abdominal cavities. While there are many styles of diaphragmatic breathing, one type that has proven to be so effective that the U.S. military teaches to its members is called combat or tactical breathing. (Civilians sometimes call it box breathing.)

This makes sense as military personnel are often placed in very high-stress, panic-inducing situations and they need to be able to calm down quickly. Tactical breathing helps them focus, get in control of their emotions and thoughts, and manage stress—all in a matter of seconds.

How tactical breathing works

Tactical breathing is easy to try. Here’s the step-by-step process:

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of four.
  • Exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of four.
  • Hold for a count of four.
  • Repeat 3-5 times, visualizing each number as you count.

The cause of your anxiety doesn’t need to be firing guns or dodging bullets for this breathing method to be effective. Anyone suffering from a panic attack or any sort of stress can use tactical breathing to ease anxiety, stop panic, and regain focus quickly, Marrugo says.

Breathing exercises are a proven way to help you focus, but you might also want to try other methods like turning on your TV or other simple tips.

But pay attention to how often you experience these moments of extreme fear and worry and learn what habits could trigger these panic attacks. If you have the symptoms of an anxiety disorder, it’s time to talk to your doctor or a therapist about long-term treatment options.