Manage a Panic Attack Due to Social or Performance Anxiety
Do you know how to stop a panic attack before it starts? Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that easy! When I speak of how to stop a panic attack in this post, I am referring to a situational panic attack in the context of social anxiety.
So let’s take a minute to understand that.
The term “panic attack” in the most technical terms refers to what is experienced by someone with panic disorder. These types of panic attacks usually occur out of the blue without any obvious trigger.
In contrast, in the case of social anxiety, you usually know what is causing you to panic. It could be anything from giving a speech at a wedding to having to speak up at a meeting at work.
What you’re really afraid of is panicking in front of everybody and not being able to hide your anxiety symptoms such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, shaking hands, or sweating.
You might worry that you’ll go blank or not be able to finish what you are doing. In your worst case scenario, you probably imagine yourself hiding behind the podium or running off to the restrooms.
While the average person might feel anxious sometimes, these panic attack situations are quite different. You are in full-on fight or flight mode and feel powerless to control it.
However, I’m here to tell you today that there are certain things you can do at the moment to help slow down, minimize, or stop a panic attack experienced due to a social or performance situation.
At the end of this post, I’m also going to include some quick tips to help you prevent these attacks from happening in the first place (in other words, things that you can do to prepare for how you will manage attacks when they start).
Okay, so let’s imagine the situation. I’ll choose one I’ve been in myself to give it some context for you. There are still times when anxiety creeps up on me.
The most dreaded of these is the “circle of death.” When you’re asked to say a few words about yourself and go around the circle waiting your turn. This one still trips me up a bit, because it’s something you can’t really practice and sometimes will even be sprung upon you.
Don’t Fight Against Your Anxiety
You’ll be tempted in this situation to fight against your anxiety. You feel like you need to control it. Whatever you do, you must make it go away.
But what happens the harder you try to make it go away?
What happens if you try not to think about chocolate cake?
You get it. So, instead of fearing your anxiety and seeing it as something horrible that you can’t live with—flip the script. I give credit for this idea to speech coach Gary Genard (author of Fearless Speaking).
Instead, say to your anxiety (in your head, or you might get some strange looks):
“Oh hello, anxiety. I was expecting you. But I’m not afraid of how I feel. I know I am safe.”
Now, instead of feeling as though that anxiety is trapped in your body, imagine that you are channeling it out into the world as you speak and move. Use that anxiety to be more energetic and present.
You might notice your anxiety start to drop when you do this. What you should do then is ask for more anxiety. By asking for more anxiety, you are telling yourself that you ‘re not scared of how you are feeling. Basically, accept your anxiety and don’t let it be boss.
This is the basis for acceptance and commitment therapy as well. If you’re really struggling to make this shift, spending some time talking to a therapist might help. I use and recommend the online therapy service Betterhelp if you feel too afraid to speak to someone in person.
Move or Shift Attention
Something else that you can do to quickly flip the script is to turn attention away from you to give yourself a minute to collect your emotions.
I did this recently in the circle of death.
I started off telling my story by sharing how it was similar to someone else in the circle. I mentioned that person by name, and all of a sudden all the attention was shifted to her.
Your goal here is not to escape the spotlight permanently, but to give yourself a breather.
If you’re doing public speaking, this could mean having other people introduce themselves (Haha! You may have just discovered the reason for the circle of death) or opening up the floor for questions.
If these aren’t options, just see if you can move or shift in some way. Get up and do something. Your goal is to break your concentration on your own anxiety.
This can also help if you have a surge of adrenaline while public speaking. Moving your feet (or just your toes) will help you to release that extra energy (as described in the video below.
Say Helpful Things to Yourself
Positive affirmations aren’t just for yogis in the jungle. You can use them too!
What you need is a mantra that you can repeat to yourself when you feel panic taking hold.
I find the easiest way to create a positive affirmation is to first identify the negative things you are saying to yourself.
For example, with a panic attack during the circle of death, you might be thinking, “I am the most anxious person, everyone else is so calm.”
This does nothing as far as how to stop a panic attack.
And it’s black-or-white thinking (along with mind-reading).
How do you know what everyone else is feeling? In the case of giving a speech, you might be thinking, “I’m bad at this, everyone else can handle it, why can’t I?”
Instead, say things to yourself like:
“I’m anxious. Other people probably are a bit too.”
“I’m not the best at this but I’m trying. I’m sure other people find it hard too.”
Be kind to yourself! Stop seeing the world as black and white. Stop thinking you know what everyone else is thinking. In other words, slow down and find one rational thing to say to yourself and stick with it.
Stay Focused on Your Message
What will finally push you to overcome your public speaking anxiety? You might be surprised to learn that Gandhi lived with panic attacks during speeches and once he had to ask someone to finish a speech for him. His anxiety was so bad he even avoided talking at gatherings and parties.
As a lawyer, he once panicked and left the courtroom.
How did he become the leader of a revolution?
He had a passion so great that it overcame his anxiety and fear. He had to stand up for what he saw was right.
Speak about what is important to you, and it will help your anxiety.
Ask yourself: what is my MESSAGE? What is the one thing you really want to tell your audience? Once you become present and remind yourself of why you are connected with your audience, it will help to lessen your panic.
Focus on Your Breath
There’s no substitute for simple awareness of your breathing. Shallow breathing is going to cause your heart rate to increase. So instead, start counting and slow down your breaths. Use the 4-7-8 technique where you breathe in for the count of 4, hold for the count of 7, and exhale for the count of 8.
Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. And try to expand your stomach as you breathe.
Visualize Your Favorite Calming Situation
Now that you’ve got your breathing under control, try to briefly visualize something that makes you feel calm and relaxed. Only you know what will do it for you, but it should be something that makes you feel calm and peaceful. That might be a beach, or a hammock, or a favorite book in a lawn chair. Or it might be hanging out by the fire with a favorite person. Try to visualize it as much as possible (within the constraints of the situation you are in).
Plan for the Future
Now that you’ve got your panic under control, let’s talk about what you can do to prepare for the next time. Because there will probably be a next time. Anxiety doesn’t disappear, you just learn how to manage it better.
Some quick things you can do:
Measure your resting heart rate (take your pulse for 10 seconds and multiply by 6). Then try to slow it down through deep breathing (when you’re not in a panic situation). This is called biofeedback and will help you the next time you panic to better manage your breathing.
Practice progressive muscle relaxation to get into a relaxed state.
Carry lavender with you in some form. The scent of lavender has been shown to help you to relax.
Ask your doctor about medication if panic attacks are severe and interfering with your daily life. These are medications that you can use as needed, such as benzodiazepines (such as Valium or Xanax) or beta-blockers (like Propranolol). These medications help to slow your heart rate and lower blood pressure. These medications should not be used too often though, as they can be habit-forming.
Plan ahead and use exercise. I remember when I had to give a presentation at the National Association of School Psychologists, I found the hotel gym and ran on the treadmill for 30 minutes that morning before my talk. I find running one of the best things I can do to help myself feel calmer before heading into a stressful situation.
To sum up: If you find yourself in the middle of a crisis, take the following actions to learn how to stop a panic attack: Accept your anxiety instead of fighting against it shift attention by asking a question or having other people ask questions, check your thoughts for distortions and choose better thoughts, think of the one thing you really want to tell your audience, breathe slowly and deeply, visualize your calm, happy place, plan for how to stop a panic attack in the future.
Have you ever experienced a panic attack in public and how did you manage it? Feel free to leave a comment below.