How To Stop a Panic Attack Using This Psychologist-Approved Trick

woman looking out a window

I’m on the subway staring into space. I’m at my desk writing a story about corn. I’m at a friend’s birthday dinner at one of my favorite restaurants. I’m zoned-out or focused or happy. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, I’m overcome with anxiety. Anxiety about what? Your guess is as good as mine.

As someone who had her first panic attack at the age of six (I was at an amusement park wearing purple gingham shorteralls and jelly sandals), I know how this goes. It’s neither my first rodeo nor my last. Not now, I reprimand my brain. I don’t have time for this.

Whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, random panic can happen to pretty much anyone. For me, sometimes that moment of panic turns into a full-blown panic attack. Other times, I can stop the feeling in its tracks using a super-simple trick I learned from a therapist I used to see.

Basically, you just observe your surroundings and start describing things—in your head—in increasing detail.

For example:

There’s a chair.

It has four legs.

The legs are wooden.

The cushion is embroidered.

The embroidery is blue and white.

It has white stitching.

Whether it’s a chair or a book cover or a cute puppy, the idea is that the more you focus on describing something, the less you focus on freaking out. The more of your brain you’re using to think of words to describe a golden retriever, the less of your brain you’re using to think about any negative thoughts swirling around your head.

I’m not saying this trick is foolproof. I have certainly tried it to no avail (i.e., that moment the panic does turn into a panic attack), but it’s saved me on more occasions than it’s failed me.

Also keep in mind that while anxiety management tools like this are definitely helpful, if you’re experiencing frequent bouts of intense anxiety, it’s worth consulting a mental health professional.

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sarah stiefvater
Sarah Stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...
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