Grounding Techniques for Panic Attacks: Regain Control and Find Calm

Published on
September 6, 2023

Did you know there are grounding techniques for panic attacks that can provide relief for you or a loved one when an attack strikes?

Panic attacks can be overwhelming and debilitating experiences. Unfortunately, millions of people experience panic attacks worldwide everyday. The sudden surge of intense fear and anxiety that come with a panic attack can leave one feeling disconnected from reality and engulfed by an uncontrollable storm of emotions. However, there is hope. Grounding techniques offer a valuable set of strategies that can help people regain control during a panic attack, providing a lifeline to stability and calm. In this article, we will explore the concept of grounding and dive into various techniques that can empower individuals to manage panic attacks with more ease.

Panic attacks are intense episodes of fear and anxiety that are accompanied by physical and psychological symptoms. Rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, trembling, dizziness, sweating, and a sense of impending doom are common experiences someone has when experiencing a panic attack. While panic attacks vary in duration and intensity, they typically peak within a few minutes and can leave someone feeling exhausted and emotionally drained.

Grounding techniques for panic attacks can help you regain control and find calm

Certain breathwork practices can play a significant role in supporting someone experiencing panic attacks. Breathwork is a powerful grounding technique, and some breathwork techniques focus on conscious and intentional control of the breath. Here's how breathwork can support panic attacks:

  1. Calming the Nervous System: During a panic attack, the body's sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight-or-flight response, becomes activated. This results in increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and heightened anxiety. Breathwork techniques, such as deep diaphragmatic breathing or coherence breathing, can activate the parasympathetic nervous system (often called “rest and digest”, which is responsible for relaxation and counteracts the effects of the sympathetic nervous system often called “fight or flight”). By consciously slowing down and deepening the breath, we are signaling the body that it is safe, which promotes a sense of calm and reduces the symptoms of the panic attack.
  2. Redirecting Attention: Panic attacks often involve intrusive and distressing thoughts which contribute to heightened anxiety. Breath awareness is the practice of focusing on our breath. By practicing breath awareness we can redirect our attention away from anxious thoughts. By focusing on the sensation of the breath flowing in and out of the body, we can shift our focus from the overwhelming thoughts and sensations associated with panic attacks. This redirection of attention helps break the cycle of rumination and brings us back to the present moment.
  3. Oxygenation and Relaxation: Rapid and shallow breathing during panic attacks can lead to hyperventilation, which further intensifies physical symptoms such as excess loss of carbon dioxide, dizziness and lightheadedness. Breathwork techniques that emphasize slow, deliberate, and deep breaths allow for proper oxygenation of the body. This increased oxygen supply supports relaxation by reducing muscle tension, stabilizing the heart rate, and promoting an overall sense of well-being. By consciously regulating the breath, we can counteract the effects of hyperventilation and create a more relaxed physiological state for ourselves.
  4. Anchoring in the Present Moment: Panic attacks create a sensation of feeling detached or disconnected from the present moment. Focusing on the breath can serve as an anchor, grounding us in the present moment. By concentrating on the physical sensations of breathing—feeling the air entering and leaving the body, the rise and fall of the abdomen—we can reestablish a connection with our immediate surroundings. This grounding effect helps reduce the feeling of dissociation, and brings a sense of stability and control.
  5. Emotional Regulation: Panic attacks can be accompanied by intense emotions such as fear, anxiety, and a sense of impending doom. Breathwork can support emotional regulation by creating a space for individuals to observe their emotions without judgment. By maintaining a steady and rhythmic breath, individuals can cultivate a sense of inner calm and balance, allowing them to respond to their emotions in a more composed and controlled manner.

Breathwork is one supportive grounding technique for panic attacks, and by itself may not be a comprehensive solution for managing panic attacks. It is most effective when combined with other grounding techniques, self-care practices, and professional guidance if needed.

The Importance of Grounding

Grounding is a mechanism that supports us in reconnecting with the present moment and our surrounding environment. During a panic attack, the mind becomes overwhelmed by catastrophic thoughts, leading to a detachment from reality. Grounding techniques serve as an anchor, grounding us in the here and now, offering stability amidst the chaos. By refocusing our attention and redirecting thoughts, grounding techniques can alleviate panic symptoms and restore a sense of control.

Additional Grounding Techniques for Panic Attacks

  1. Deep Breathing: We’ve already explored some of the ways our breath can support us during a panic attack. One key to remember about the breath is that simply by lengthening the exhale to be longer than the inhale, we can be effective in helping to calm the nervous system.
  2. Sensory Grounding: Engaging the senses can redirect your attention away from distressing thoughts. Identify and describe five things you see, four things you hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This exercise brings your attention back to the immediate environment.
  3. Muscle Relaxation: Progressive muscle relaxation involves systematically tensing and then releasing different muscle groups. Start from the toes, gradually working up to the head. This technique promotes physical relaxation, easing the body's response to panic.
  4. Counting or Reciting: Counting or reciting something repetitive, such as a favorite poem or song lyrics, can divert attention from anxious thoughts and create a sense of calm. This practice will also stimulate the vagus nerve, increasing the relaxation response.
  5. Grounding Objects: Carrying a small object with sensory qualities, such as a smooth stone or a textured keychain, can provide a physical anchor during a panic attack. Focus on its weight, texture, and temperature to help you reconnect with the present moment.
  6. Visualization: Close your eyes and visualize a calming scene or place from memory or imagination. Engage the senses in the visualization, imagining the sights, sounds, and scents, to promote relaxation and shift your attention away from panic symptoms.

Panic attacks can be extremely uncomfortable and distressing, but with the help of grounding techniques, individuals can regain control over their thoughts and emotions. By anchoring themselves in the present moment, individuals experiencing panic attacks can find stability and calm amidst the storm. It is important to remember that grounding techniques may vary in effectiveness for different individuals, and it may require some experimentation to find the most beneficial techniques for managing panic attacks.

It is also possible, through lifestyle changes and holistic therapies, to heal from and/or permanently end panic attacks.  Healing from panic attacks through holistic therapies involves taking a comprehensive approach that addresses the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of our well-being. Through Introspective Breathwork™, we’ve supported hundreds of individuals to heal and integrate the underlying issues which cause panic attacks.

What causes panic attacks?  

High levels of chronic stress, significant life changes, or ongoing stressful situations can contribute to the development of panic attacks. Poor lifestyle habits, such as inadequate sleep, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, and substance abuse, can also increase the risk of experiencing panic attacks.

Adverse life experiences or traumatic experiences, like physical or emotional abuse, accidents, or witnessing a traumatic event, can lead to the development of panic attacks. In some cases, individuals with PTSD may experience panic attacks as part of their response to triggers or flashbacks associated with their traumatic experiences.

Panic attacks can also be triggered by specific situations, like being in a crowded space or in enclosed spaces (like an elevator), running into someone with whom you had a previous negative encounter, and even by hearing a song or certain smells.

It’s possible for us to be triggered by something in our environment without having any idea why we are being negatively affected and reactive, and epigenetics provides us with insight into the potentiality that we carry traumatic experiences from our ancestors. Epigenetics is a field of study that explores how gene expression can be influenced by factors beyond changes in the underlying DNA sequence. It investigates how environmental factors and experiences can affect the activation or suppression of genes, potentially influencing an individual's physical and mental health outcomes.

Recent research in epigenetics suggests that traumatic experiences endured by previous generations can leave marks on our DNA, potentially influencing how we respond to similar situations in our own lives. This concept is often referred to as "ancestral or transgenerational trauma."

Epigenetic modifications can occur in response to various environmental factors, including traumatic experiences. These modifications can alter the functioning of genes involved in stress responses, emotional regulation, and other aspects of mental health. As a result, individuals may be more susceptible to experiencing anxiety, depression, or other psychological symptoms, even if they haven't directly experienced a traumatic event themselves.

Ancestral traumatic memory, as proposed in some theories, suggests that these epigenetic changes can be inherited across generations. While the specific mechanisms are not yet fully understood, research has shown evidence of these transgenerational effects in animals. Studies on humans, however, are more limited and complex due to ethical considerations and the challenges of studying multi-generational effects in human populations.

It's important to approach this topic with caution and avoid oversimplification or making assumptions about an individual's experiences solely based on ancestral trauma. Each person's response to environmental factors and traumatic experiences is unique, influenced by a combination of genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors.

Understanding the potential impact of ancestral trauma is valuable in acknowledging the interconnectedness of our experiences and the broader context of mental health. Regardless of what the root cause of our issues—including anxiety and panic attacks—may be, the good news is that we can heal what the body is holding through a process like Introspective Breathwork™, that involves connecting with a present-moment sensation in their body, conscious breathing, and allowing the mind-body to completely process and integrate what arises.

Adopting a holistic approach to one’s lifestyle can support healing from panic attacks. This includes maintaining a balanced diet, prioritizing sleep and rest, engaging in regular exercise or movement, managing stress through practices like journaling or art therapy, cultivating healthy relationships and social connections, and engaging in activities that bring us joy and fulfillment. Taking care of one’s overall well-being contributes to a more resilient and grounded state, which reduces the frequency and severity of panic attacks. Introspective Breathwork™ is a therapeutic process that supports integration of past adverse experiences, helps people to feel more connected to themselves (as well as to nature and to others), encourages them to reclaim their personal power, and empowers them to create a meaningful life that brings them joy.

You may also be interested in trying some of these somatic therapy exercises, or these breathwork techniques.

This article was all about Grounding Techniques for Panic Attacks: Regain Control and Find Calm

by Lisa McNett, Founder of One Breath Institute

Experience our empowering Breathwork Sessions for free, every Sunday

Start your journey towards becoming who you were meant to be with a free Introspective Breathwork™ Session, held every Sunday at 11am EST.

One Breath Institute logo