Anyone who has experienced a panic attack will tell you that such episodes are among the most painful, terrifying, and seemingly unbearable experiences he or she has endured. Panic attacks can come out of the blue and generally last no longer than ten minutes or so – but that ten minutes can feel like an eternity and have a traumatic impact on you.
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
What’s more, due to the unpredictability of many panic attacks, once you’ve had one, the fear of having another and not knowing when it might occur can lead you to curtail many of your activities, such as driving on the freeway, social gatherings, and even work. Although panic attacks are but one form of an anxiety disorder, concern about potential panic attacks can lead to developing a more chronic and generalized anxiety disorder.
Some lucky (?) people experience only one panic attack, whereas other people may have them on several or more occasions. Fortunately, 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 some options, you can try a formal mindfulness technique, yoga, or tai chi. Over time, you’ll learn to get some psychological distance from momentary feelings of physiological or emotional arousal, knowing that these sensations are (to use a common metaphor) clouds passing through the sky of your life. In addition, you’ll gain clarity on body sensations, emotions, or thoughts that might be causing anxiety for you, and thus be in a better position to take appropriate action, be it leaving the situation or practicing stress management techniques.
Become willing to have and to express your emotions. Try as we may to rein in or deny our feelings, our bodies will let us know the truth one way or another. 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.
Eliminate or reduce stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and sugar. While these substances can give us a boost in energy and lift our spirits, they can also induce increases in blood sugar and excitatory hormones that might precipitate a panic attack, either immediately or through contributing to our overall stress load.
Get physical exercise on a consistent basis. Exercise lowers levels of the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol, and increases levels of endorphins, which can relax you.
Know that the panic attack is actually a normal bodily reaction to a perceived stressor. If you were encountering a threatening stranger who was brandishing a gun, your body would automatically come to your aid by:
- Elevating 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 this fight-or-flight response worked in your favor.
During a panic attack, your body responds in just the same way as it would in a truly perilous situation. The difference is that in the case of a panic attack, there is no apparent stimulus. However, it is often the case that panic attacks are more likely to occur when we’ve been under an inordinate amount of stress, have lost someone or something important to us, or are in a state of physiological imbalance. Thus, if you’re prone to panic attacks, it might be helpful 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 counter catastrophic thinking.
If your heart rate is racing, try telling yourself ,“This is just a rush of adrenalin”, rather than “I’m having a heart attack”.
If you feel short of breath, 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.
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 come to pass over prolonged 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.