Having a panic attack can be one of the most frightening and almost unbearable experiences you may ever suffer. Panic attacks, which can hit you at any time and any place, and which generally last ten minutes or less – can truly be traumatic.
Common physical symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Tightening in the chest
- Choking sensations
- Tingling in the hands and feet
- Common psychological symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Feelings of unreality or as if things are surreal
- An intense urge to flee the situation
- Fear of going crazy
- Fear of dying
- Fear of doing something uncontrollable
Due to panic attacks often occurring seemingly out of the blue, once you’d had one such attack, it’s natural to be concerned about if, when, and where you might go through another such experience. As a result, you may begin to shy away from a lot of your usual activities, such as commuting to and from work, attending social functions, and even trips to the grocery store, which may severely impact your life. In addition to one or more panic attacks, worrying about having another attack may contribute to your developing generalized anxiety disorder, which, as it sounds, is a more chronic and pervasive condition.
It’s hard to say why some people experience only one panic attack, while other people may have them on several or more occasions. So many factors weigh in, such as individual genetics, life circumstances, underlying medical conditions, diet, and recent stressors. Nevertheless, there are steps you can take to help reduce the intensity of such attacks, should they occur, and to manage your reactions.
Develop a regular meditation or relaxation practice. For instance, you can try a formal mindfulness technique, yoga, or tai chi class. With consistent practice, you’ll begin to gain a healthy dose of detachment from temporary sensations of physiological or emotional arousal, knowing that these feelings are like clouds passing through the sky of your life – transient, not permanent. You will strengthen the “inner observer” inside you – your Wise Self. What’s more, you’ll become clearer on what bodily sensations, emotions, or thoughts that might be causing you anxiety for you. Then you’ll be in a better position to take effective action, be it leaving the situation or practicing stress management techniques.
Become willing to have and to express your emotions. Trying to rein in or deny our feelings is not in our best interest. Our feelings are valuable clues regarding what is important to us. The more accepting you can be of your feelings, and the more capable you become of stating them in appropriate ways, the less stress you are likely to feel in general. Of course, we can’t let our feelings lead us to act destructively – there is a difference between having a feeling and letting it dictate our actions.
Eliminate or reduce stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and sugar. These substances can admittedly perk us up and give us added energy. However, they can also increase blood sugar and excitatory hormones that might induce a panic attack, either immediately or through contributing to our overall stress load.
Exercise on a regular basis. Exercise decreases levels of the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol, and increases levels of endorphins, which can relax you.
Keep in mind that panic attacks are actually normal bodily reactions to a perceived stressor. If you ran into a threatening stranger who was holding a gun, your body would automatically help you out by:
- Increasing your heart rate
- Tensing your muscles
- Increasing blood flow to your muscles
- Increasing your respiratory (breathing) rate
- Constricting your arteries and reducing blood flow to your hands and feet
- Increasing your blood sugar
- Increasing perspiration
All of these processes would enable you to survive your crisis. Maybe you can remember instances in which such a fight-or-flight response worked in your favor.
During a panic attack, your body responds in the same way that it would in a truly dangerous situation. The difference is that in the case of a panic attack, there is no apparent stimulus. All the same, as a general rule, panic attacks are more apt to occur when we’ve been under an exceptionally large amount of stress, have lost someone or something important to us, or are in a state of physiological imbalance, such as an acute or long-term medical condition. So, if you’re prone to panic attacks, you may want to check with your health practitioner to rule out (or effectively manage) potential medical conditions such as diabetes, a thyroid disorder, female hormone imbalances, mitral valve prolapse, or another heart condition.
Learn to talk back to catastrophic thinking.
If your heart is pounding, try telling yourself ,“This is just a rush of adrenalin”, rather than “I’m having a heart attack”.
If you feel breathless, try telling yourself, “This is just part of my body’s fight-or-flight response”. When our sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, our muscles around our chest cavity constrict, which can make it feel as if we can’t catch a deep breath.
If you have the thought that you might go crazy, try telling yourself, “This is just anxiety – it will pass”. Serious psychological disorders such as psychosis are not only relatively rare but tend to develop over long periods of time.
Learn to ride it out. By definition, panic attacks are time-limited and driven by a rush of adrenalin. If you can accept and tolerate the (admittedly uncomfortable) symptoms rather than fighting them, you’ll increase your chances of the panic “wave” peaking and then subsiding without aggravating the problem.
In the meanwhile, you could try some deep belly breathing (to promote your body’s relaxation response) and repeating a calming phrase to yourself such as:
“Although I don’t like this feeling, I’m willing to accept it.”
“I can wait this out, and my anxiety will decrease.”
“I’ve gotten through this before, and I can do so again.”
Get sufficient sleep and eat a nutritious diet. We all know that we need to take good care of our bodies. For some people, not doing so can manifest in a panic attack.
Learn to approach what you fear. This is a time-honored and research-based way of dealing with panic and anxiety in general. You don’t have to dive into the activity you fear all at once – take baby steps. In doing so, you may experience some moments of panic, but these will just give you another opportunity to learn that you can survive them and live a fulfilling life. Ironically, as a result your panic attacks are likely to subside in frequency and severity.
Ultimately, along with making appropriate chances to your lifestyle to help reduce the chances of a panic attacks, you can gain control over your experience of such episodes, so that you are once again in the driver’s seat.