Our minds have this incredibly interesting ability to distort our perception of time. There are instances where the hours seem to fly by, like when you have a busy day at work. Contrastly, there are times where the minutes just seem to tick by slower than a tortoise in a race. When a panic attack hits, unfortunately, people tend to experience the later type of time distortion. The length in which a panic attack will last can vary by episode, but even if it passes very quickly, the person experiencing the attack often feels as though it will last forever.
The average duration of a panic attack
On average, panic attacks can last anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes. The peak of the attack typically occurs somewhere around 10 minutes after the start of the attack, but again, may differ from case to case. Additionally, it is possible for some panic attacks to last longer than 20, or even 30 minutes. In some cases, panic attacks can even last for a few hours.
How to shorten a panic attack
No one wants to experience a panic attack, let alone one that lasts for hours. Imagine you could actually shorten the length of your panic attack? The trick to shortening the length of a panic attack is having tools to manage the symptoms and send signals to the brain that everything is okay. How? The most effective method of easing and ending panic attacks is through breathing – deep, slow breathing. The rapid shallow breathing often exhibited during panic attacks sends a signal to the brain to panic. In order to change the signals sent to the brain to once that indicate everything is actually okay, you must slow down your breathing. Usually, a reminder from someone else to slow your breathing is effective, but there are other tricks that can assist in this process:
- The paper bag: the most iconic method of managing a panic attack, what breathing through a paper bag provides a clear visual of how you are breathing. When you see the bag inflate or deflate, you know if you are breathing deeply. Plus it provides a physical thing for you to focus on other than the thoughts of fear and doom.
- Synchronized breathing: If you don’t have a paper bag nearby, then a great alternative is to synchronize your breathing with another person… someone who isn’t in the middle of a panic attack. This person can help you by breathing deeply themselves and allowing you to follow their breathing pattern. They may also give you verbal cues like “breath with me”.
- Words of affirmation & assurance: In order to help us redirect our thoughts to more helpful ones, words of affirmation and assurance are extremely powerful. Simple phrases such as “You are safe”, “You are going to be okay”, “I’m right here with you”, or “You can do this” are often effective.
Easy, right? Not exactly. We know that this is all easier said than done. Someone who is experiencing a panic attack is clearly not in total control of what’s happening, or else they probably would be having a panic attack! Nonetheless, people who have panic disorder can practice this type of deep breathing and surround themselves with support when they need it.
What if no one is around?
Consider having a panic attack and no one is nearby to give you a paper bag. What do you do now? How long will panic attacks last when there is no one to help? Some people might be able to work through it on their own, but outside support is ideal. If you think about it, everything except for being handed a paper bag can be done over the phone. While a video chat where you can visually synchronize breathing might be nice, even just the sound of someone else’s deep breathing can be enough. So if you feel an anxiety attack coming on and no one is around, give a trusted friend or family member a call before things get worse!