We all know the feeling. You have butterflies in your stomach, your palms sweat and your heart races, your mind becomes hyper-alert. Most people feel these sensations before an important and challenging life event, but they go away fairly quickly.  Some anxiety before a significant event (like a presentation or a test) is normal. It can even help you prepare and perform better.

But if you often experience these kinds of symptoms or ones that are more severe, it’s possible you’re having an anxiety attack. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Anxiety attacks cause noticeable physical and mental symptoms in response to stressful situations – including chest pain, dizziness, terror, breathlessness and fear of having a heart attack.

Anxiety attacks can be frightening and embarrassing. It can feel like you’ve lost control and you may even try to avoid situations that might trigger another one – which restricts your enjoyment of life and can even make your anxiety worse.

The good news is, there are ways to minimize the symptoms and shorten their duration. When you feel an anxiety attack coming on, here are some things you can do to slow it down:

Deep breathing. Inhale deeply, hold for a few seconds, then exhale slowly. Repeat for 20 breaths or as needed. Focusing on your breathing helps your mind shift from the sympathetic response (fight, flight or freeze) to the more relaxed parasympathetic response (rest and digest). As you inhale, you saturate your body, blood and organs with oxygen which boosts energy. Breathing out helps expel toxins.

Ground yourself. Switch your focus from what’s happening in your head to an object nearby, like the cover of a book, the sleeve of your sweater, the bark on a tree. Notice the pictures, the colours, how it feels, the shape. By moving from abstract thoughts to concrete objects you can switch your brain to its sensory mode and override the effects of anxiety.

Start counting. Like counting sheep, counting objects in the room, or just numbers in your head, will trigger the logical side of your brain and distract from the irrational fears that are triggering your anxiety attack.

Drink water. Anxiety can be a side effect of dehydration, so drinking more water can help lessen or prevent anxiety attacks. Even just the process of filling a glass with water can take your mind off what’s stressing you out and help you use your senses more.

While anxiety attacks are often beyond control, it is possible to adjust your mindset to manage anxiety and reduce its effect on your day-to-day life. Connect with a mental health professional for advice and try to take note of what triggers your anxiety, then take steps to change these situations in the future.

Most of all, take care of your mental and physical health. Try to stay positive and accept that you can’t control everything. Look for ways to improve your nutrition and get lots of sleep, especially when you’re stressed. And remember that exercise helps release stress and channels your energy in a positive direction.