How to Stop Panic Attacks Naturally
It’s estimated that 1 in 10 people suffer from occasional panic attacks, while 1 in 50 has panic disorder, which results in more frequent attacks. Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from the condition.
Panic attacks cause both physical and emotional symptoms; an overwhelming fear or apprehension, along with nausea, sweating, heart palpitations, uncontrollable shaking and shortness of breath. These attacks often last between 5 and 20 minutes, with some people likening them to a heart attack.
What Causes Panic Attacks?
For many it seems that panic attacks may occur for no apparent reason and can catch people completely off guard. In reality they occur when the body perceives an immediate threat or danger, which causes nerve impulses in the brain to go into overdrive. Sometimes that threat isn’t always obvious or reasonable.
Although the trigger for attacks is often a false alarm, the body releases adrenaline preparing it for ‘fight-or-flight' – either running from the threat or preparing to fight it. This is useful in extreme life-or-death circumstances, but is paralyzing when you are trying to live your life as normal.
The extra adrenaline causes the heart to beat faster and blood is diverted to the muscles. This causes a feeling of light headedness as blood is shunted to the extremities. Although the exact cause can vary from person to person, certain factors are known to increase the risk, including:
- Stressful situations
- Traumatic experiences, such as bereavement
- Nutrient deficiencies.
Finding the best treatment can be tricky, so always speak to your GP for medical advice regarding your individual needs. Avoiding stressful situations can help but this is not always practical, so diet may be the best place to start; there is evidence to show that deficiencies cause imbalances in the body that increase the risk of anxiety and panic attacks.
Certain foods also heighten feelings of anxiety – sugar and caffeine stimulate the adrenal gland and upset blood sugar levels. While they are not solely responsible, they can contribute to the frequency of attacks.
Trying to tackle panic attacks can seem hopeless, especially with how frightening attacks can be. There are ways, though, to help reduce the impact of attacks and, potentially, reduce their frequency:
How to Stop Panic Attacks Naturally
Slow your breathing. When you feel anxiety building it is important to focus on something the body does not perceive to be threatening. If your breathing becomes too shallow, the panic attack may worsen. Take slow deep breaths through the nose for the count of four and then lengthen the exhalation of each breath.
Breathing and relaxation exercises can also help you cope with lingering anxiety, helping to prevent attacks happening during the day. There are theories that connect panic attacks with CO2 sensitivity, meaning that even having small amount of the gas over the norm can cause the body to attempt to release it via a panic attack. There’s been some success with breathing training to keep CO2 better regulated, but the link needs strengthening before breathing training can be widely prescribed.
Cold Water Treatment
Splashing the face with cold water helps to shock the panic out of the system, slows down breathing, and reduces the heart rate by up to 25%. This is because both the heart and sensation are linked by the parasympathetic nervous system, unconsciously reacting to various stimuli like temperature and physical sensations.
Alternatively, you can soak a towel in cold water and place it around the face and neck. If anxiety is severe then you may find submerging your face in water for a number of seconds even more effective.
The mental benefits of exercise are often emphasised, releasing endorphins to help people feel happy (often known as the “runner’s high). It can also be a useful tool to help you combat against panic attacks; Anxiety UK says that five 30-minute sessions a week can be beneficial against panic and anxiety disorders. It doesn’t even need to be vigorous – gentle walks not only give you a work out but help take your mind off matters. For the more determined, heavier exercise gives you a healthy outlet to channel frustrations built up during the day.
Over time, yoga helps to relax the body and mind, and lower everyday anxiety and stress levels. This practice involves breathing techniques to slow the heart rate and reduce nervous energy. It might not seem like it, but it also counts as a gentle form of exercise (linking into the previous point), with the stretches increasing the blood flow throughout the body. Yoga also involves self-study, which can help to identify any underlying causes of anxiety. In a study of twenty subjects showed reductions in anxiety levels when yoga was done both by itself and alongside behavioural therapy.
Essential oils can offer calming effects that help you to relax and unwind. Try adding a few drops of lavender essential oil or rose water to a handkerchief or oil burner. Aromatherapy can be a great way to help relax and lower your background anxiety, and has been tested and proved in a number of stressful settings, such as before painful hospital procedures. While the precise measurements and dosages haven’t been precisely examined on a scientific level, one review study looking at 20 years of aromatherapy research has found positive results when used against anxiety.
Natural Remedies for Anxiety
In today's medicine-orientated society, many of us are turning to natural alternatives to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks, and certain vitamins and minerals can play a significant role. If you suffer from anxiety consider one of the following supplements for anxiety and stress:
Vitamin B Complex
The eight B vitamins, particularly B6, B9 (folic acid) and B12, are essential for the proper function of the nervous system and can help to calm the nerves and reduce mental stress and fatigue. For these reasons, they are often referred to as anti-stress nutrients. In fact, a 2013 study that looked into the effect of a vitamin B complex on those with depressive symptoms and anxiety, and found that it “may offer an opportunity for adults with depression to improve mood symptoms and quality of life.”
Good food sources of vitamin B include liver, meat, turkey, whole grains, and bananas, while supplements can also help to cover any dietary gaps. All eight B vitamins work together, and so many people find it best to take a vitamin B complex supplement to prevent any imbalances.
Calcium and Magnesium
Chelated magnesium is often referred to as the 'calming mineral' and it may help to prepare the body for the fight-or-flight response associated with stressful situations. Cortisol – the ‘stress’ hormone – depletes levels of magnesium in the body, and so those who feel stressed and overworked can be more vulnerable to panic attacks.
Good food sources include dark-green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, whole grains such as oats and buckwheat. In supplement form, calcium and magnesium are best taken in a 2:1 ratio to optimise their absorption and utilisation by the body.
We produce much of our vitamin D from the sun, but during the winter months the sun's rays simply aren't strong enough for our bodies to produce sufficient levels. As a result, those of us living in the UK often have fairly low vitamin D levels during the winter, which can cause any feelings of anxiety and depression to worsen – a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
It's important to ensure that your vitamin D levels are topped up throughout the year to reduce the risk of seasonal mood and anxiety disorders. A study from the Institute of Endocrinology in Prague noted that those with anxiety had lower levels of calcidiol, a hormone produced using vitamin D3.
Iron is an essential cofactor for the synthesis of serotonin in the brain, and low dietary intakes of iron can cause anaemia, fatigue, anxiety and panic attacks.
A recent 2015 study found that patients admitted to hospital for panic attacks and hyperventilation all had low levels of iron and vitamin B6. These findings were compared to a control group, who all showed adequate levels. However, this was only a small-scale study, and so further research is needed.
Iron is widely available in foods such as liver, shellfish and chickpeas. According to the World Health Organisation, iron is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world with some people, particularly women of childbearing age, potentially finding iron supplements to be beneficial.
This amino acid is most commonly used to shield against cold sores, but it has a second use. Deficiencies in lysine have been linked to anxiety, and research is starting to accrue that points to it being able to help alleviate stress and panic when taken as a supplement.
A Japanese study in 2007, looking at 108 students found that, with oral supplementation of lysine, their anxiety was significantly reduced. One measurement taken was the levels of cortisol in the participants’ saliva adding credence to their findings.
5HTP is an amino acid that helps to boost serotonin levels, and studies have shown that low levels of serotonin in the brain can facilitate panic attacks.
One small-scale placebo-controlled trial involved participants taking 200mg doses of 5HTP and being subjected to a 35% CO2 challenge. Findings showed that participants in the 5HTP group experienced fewer panic attacks, compared to the placebo group. However, this another small-scale study, and so more research is required.
Panic attacks are a frightening and distressing experience, partly because of the feeling that there’s no way to control them. That is not the case – using these techniques and lifestyle changes, you can help minimise the impact panic can have on your life. Along with this, there’s a number of vitamins and minerals you can take to support the body, brain and nervous system against feelings of anxiety.
While this advice can help, if you are suffering from constant or severe panic attacks then see a doctor as soon as possible.