If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you know just how terrifying they can be.
The first time I had one, my heart felt like it was going to pound right out of my chest. I actually thought I was dying.
And my experience isn’t unique. People in the throes of a panic attack often believe they’re suffering from a medical emergency. Which isn’t surprising, considering symptoms come on without warning and can include:
These symptoms can be intensely debilitating, and can last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes.
Now for the good news: It’s possible to stop panic attacks in their tracks in less than 30 seconds—without a single pill.
In fact, research shows an ancient breathing technique may be the most powerful remedy there is for panic attacks.
And today, I’ll tell you exactly how to do it.
A 15th-century solution tested for modern problems
The breathing technique I’m going to share with you today was first mentioned in a 15th-century Indian text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
This text is considered to be the most prominent and influential of all Hatha Yoga scriptures. It teaches a holistic, spiritual system—including yoga postures and deep meditative techniques—intended to help both the body and mind become more flexible.
Hatha Yoga is the basis for what Westerners typically picture when we think of yoga.
In a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Yoga, a team of researchers studied a specific Hatha Yoga breath control technique, called Sama Vritti pranayama, and its effect on a cognitive process called response inhibition.
Response inhibition refers to your ability to consciously suppress impulses or behaviors. (For example, you have strong response inhibition if you’re really hungry, but stop yourself from biting into something that just came out of the oven.)
The psychological stress of a panic attack alters your response inhibition, essentially hijacking your brain’s ability to think rationally.
Researchers hypothesized that Sama Vritti pranayama (also known as “box breathing,” “square breathing,” or “equal breathing”) could help participants better regulate their reactions and emotions… A helpful tactic that may also prove extremely helpful in the midst of a panic attack.
Simple breath work eases panic starting in 24 seconds.
During the eight-week study, 36 participants were split into two groups. One was led through several 20-minute sessions of Sama Vritti pranayama. The other group, the control group, did not participate in breathing exercises.
For Sama Vritti pranayama, the participants split their breath cycle into four even parts. They:
Before and after the intervention, the researchers administered a series of tests to gauge the strength of each participant’s response inhibition.
They found that after the intervention, the breathing group significantly improved their ability to control their impulses compared to the control group.
The researchers concluded that this was because the exercise allowed them to slow their reaction and thinking process enough to regain control over their decision-making.
The breathing group also reported increased self-awareness and lower stress levels than the control group.
Panic attack first-aid
I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this yogic breathing exercise.
I’ve used the Sama Vritti pranayama time and time again to help realign myself when I feel a panic attack coming on. (It also works well to ease stress in high pressure situations.)
If you or someone you know suffers from panic attacks—or severe anxiety—here are some simple steps to help you stop them in their tracks, starting in less than 30 seconds:
Focus on controlling your breathing rhythm.
Since panic attacks usually result in rapid breathing, this will be your first area of focus. Do your best to slow it down and stick with it.
Remember, the Sama Vritti pranayama technique breaks your breath cycles up into four even parts, lasting 6-seconds each.
Use a fewer amount of seconds per part if you have limited lung capacity:
Feel free to close your eyes to help improve your focus.
Though life can throw some serious challenges your way, always remember that you can tap into your body’s built-in tools to help conquer them.
And the more you practice and perfect these techniques, the better and faster they’ll work—especially when you, or a loved one, need them the most.
How can you stop a panic attack? (n.d.). Medical News Today. Retrieved from: medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321510.php#how-to-help-during-a-panic-attack
Panic Disorder. (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from: nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/panic-disorder.shtml
Qi, M., Gao H., and Liu, G. (2017). Effect of acute psychological stress on response inhibition: An event-related potential study. Behavioural Brain Research. April 14;323: pp. 32 – 37. Retrieved from: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28130173
Saoji, A., Raghavendra, B., Rajesh, S., and Manjunath, N. (2018). Immediate Effects of Yoga Breathing with Intermittent Breath Holding on Response Inhibition among Healthy Volunteers. International Journal of Yoga. Retrieved from: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5934957/
Smith, M. (2019). Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder. HelpGuide. Retrieved from: helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/panic-attacks-and-panic-disorders.htm
Symptoms. (n.d.). Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Retrieved from: adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/panic-disorder-agoraphobia/symptoms
Yoga Talk – Yoga Vidya. (2011 December 15). What is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika? [Video File]. Retrieved from: youtube.com/watch?v=UTfgiycnUys