Panic attacks can make you feel as though your world is collapsing. While you’re in the middle of one, all you can think about is how long it will last and how to stop panicking. Focusing on it so intently can cause you to become more panicked and make it more difficult to calm down. Because you’re so focused on the panic attack, it’s easy to lose perspective on how long it actually lasts and how you can deal with it.
Rest assured, while panic attacks can feel catastrophic, they actually don’t last terribly long. Once you learn what to expect, you can find ways to work through and recover from episodes of panic, helping yourself recover more quickly and get back to living your life.
Length of a Panic Attack
A panic attack is when you have a sudden and intense period of panic or anxiety that seems to come out of nowhere. Some people use the term interchangeably with anxiety attack, however the key difference is that panic attacks don’t have an apparent trigger. These intense periods of panic can stand on their own, or can be part of other mental disorders like depression, social phobias, and panic disorder. Panic attacks can be so frightening that you feel like you’ll be in that state forever. However, most panic attacks end within 30 minutes, with most of them taking around 10 minutes from start to finish.
The intensity of physical symptoms can easily add to feeling like you’ll be stuck in a state of panic for a long time. These symptoms include things like intense fear, feeling like you’re going crazy, shortness of breath, a fast, and a pounding heartbeat, which sometimes lead panic attack victims to believe they are suffering a heart attack. These physical symptoms happen because of your body’s fight or flight response. This response helped our ancestors make life or death decisions when faced with mortal danger, heightening the senses, allowing them to deal with dire situations. While we don’t face the same situations in our modern day, our brains still have this response passed down from our ancestors. What should be an objectively innocuous situation to the rational part of your mind can trigger this ancient response if your brain believes you are in any kind of danger.
As stated above, panic attacks vary in length. Factors that can increase or decrease the length of a panic attack include the severity of the panic you are experiencing, if you’ve had panic attacks before, and your state of mind before having the panic attack. If you were already tired or stressed out, your mind will have more trouble combating feelings of panic that seem to come out of nowhere. This can cause your panic attack to last longer than it would have if you were in a better state of mind.
After a Panic Attack
While a panic attack itself may not last very long, the aftereffects can last a long time. It takes a lot of energy for your body to maintain your fight or flight response, and being in that state for prolonged periods of time can wreak havoc on your mind and your body.
After a panic attack, you might experience some of the following symptoms.
Difficulty focusing: Your mind is still thinking about the things that caused you to panic in the first place. This can make it difficult for you to focus on other things in your life, and can even cause mental fog.
Excessive alertness: Your fight, flight, or freeze response is hosted in the sympathetic nervous system. The hormones that your body secreted during your panic attack are still in your bloodstream, and it takes time for those effects to wear off. Your brain has to tell your parasympathetic nervous system that it’s okay to be calm and relax. After you’ve just gone through a period of panic, it can be hard to feel like you’re in a safe place. If you don’t tell yourself that it’s okay that you panicked, your mind won’t send the signal to your parasympathetic system, and it’ll take longer for you to go off of high alert.
Racing thoughts: racing thoughts are generally a symptom of panic attacks, but can continue to occur after the worst of your panic has subsided. Your thoughts can race from one subject to another and can feel completely uncontrollable. This can be as a result of the adrenaline racing through your system. When your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, your thoughts should be easier to control.
Fatigue: because of the amount of mental resources a panic attack uses up, it makes sense that you might feel tired afterwards. Some people report feeling tired for a couple of hours, while others might be tired all day or for days after the period of panic. The amount of fatigue you might feel depends on the severity of your panic attack, as well as your constitution overall.
Nobody is certain why panic attacks happen. Unlike anxiety attacks, there aren’t typically immediately identifiable causes of panic attacks. We do know that panic attacks and panic disorders tend to run in families, but it’s not clear how much of that is genetics and how much of that is how you were raised. Many people who suffer from depression also experience panic attacks, but there is no evidence that either causes the other. Panic attacks can also come from physical diseases like low blood sugar, hyperthyroidism, and heart valve issues. Those who have recently gone through stressful life events like divorce or death are also subject to panic attacks.
How to Reduce the Length of a Panic Attack
If you are trying to figure out how long a panic lasts, chances are you want to do everything you can to make them shorter. The best thing you can do is to learn several coping methods that have been proven to help reduce panic attacks. Some of the methods below have been proven to help minimize or de-escalate a period of intense panic.
Detach yourself from your thoughts
Observing your thoughts instead of reacting to them can help reduce overwhelming feelings of anxiety and panic. It’s easy to get caught up in anxious thoughts and let them get the best of you, causing your state of panic and dread to continue long past your panic attack. However, if you can detach yourself from the outcome of your thoughts, and learn to observe them instead of getting caught up in them, your thoughts will have less power over you and you can exit your state of panic sooner.
Use grounding techniques
Grounding techniques help you reconnect to your present situation. Panic and anxiety can cause you to worry about the future or get caught up in the past. Using physical sensations as a point of reference, tapping into your senses to help you get out of your head and realize that you’re safe right where you are.
Reflect instead of reacting
Learning to question your thoughts can be difficult, but it can help reduce feelings of panic and anxiety. Taking the time to reflect on your fear can help you identify potential sources for it, which in turn can help you to address those feelings. Knowing where your panic is coming from can also help take the power away from it.
Practice positive self-talk
Doctors aren’t exactly sure why positive self-talk helps during a panic attack. Experts believe that your mind adapts to the words you are saying and starts to believe that you’re okay. During times of panic, telling yourself that you are safe can help your brain send signals to the parasympathetic nervous system sooner, which will in turn lead to a calmer state of being.
Learn how to recognize a panic attack
It’s hard to come down from a panic attack if you don’t realize you’re having one. Recognizing some of the signs early on can help you realize that you need to engage in some calming methods.
Panic attack symptoms include:
- Feeling dizzy, faint, or weak
- Feeling like your heart is racing
- Having tingling or numbness in your hands
- Being overwhelmed by a sense of terror
- Feeling pain in your chest
- Having difficulty breathing
If all else fails, a distraction can help get your mind off of your panic attack. Often times, people having a panic attack will make their symptoms worse by obsessing over their panic. Taking the time to read a book, talk to a friend, exercise, or engage in a hobby you enjoy can give your mind something else to focus on in a time of crisis.
Try meditative breathing
Practicing meditative breathing is a good way to send a signal to your brain that it’s time to calm down. Because the autonomic nervous system controls your breathing, you can change your breathing pattern to trick your nervous system into believing that you are safe and can ease up on the fight or flight response. If you don’t think you can do meditative breathing on your own, try out some of Spire’s guided meditations to reach a state of calm.
Panic attacks don’t last long, but you can be stuck with the aftereffects for quite some time afterwards. By being able to recognize panic attacks as they are happening and instituting some ways to calm down, you can reduce the impact panic attacks have on your mind and body. It’ll take time, but with practice you can get to a more normal way of life.