I’ve had one panic attack in my life, and I’m thankful it came during grad school after I had already learned about them so I didn’t freak out too much. We were about 2 months out from the birth of our first daughter taking a birthing class at the hospital.
Everything was going swimmingly… until they started to talk about ALL THE MILLION POSSIBLE THINGS THAT COULD GO WRONG FOR BOTH THE BABY AND MY WIFE.
Now my wife’s a nurse who has wanted to be a mommy since she was 12, so this was nothing for her. I, on the other hand, didn’t do so hot.
Well, actually, I got really hot. And sweaty. And pale. And felt the world swim. Like I was going to pass out. Or maybe I was having a heart attack. Could I make it to the bathroom? Nope. Definitely would pass out on the way. Wait. This feels like that panic attack thing I learned about in class. Oh crap.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so uncomfortable in my life. Thankfully that was my one and only experience with panic.
For millions of others, panic attacks are a regular occurrence with little predictability. It could be at the grocery store, or at work, or in the shower.
If that sounds like you, then I am so sorry you’re going through that!
It. Is. Awful.
But I’ve got good news! Panic attacks often respond well to treatment, and you can start on your own!
What’s happening during a panic attack?
Panic attacks follow a cycle that begins with a trigger. It could be something in your environment, or it could be a thought, or even in response to your own body.
Once the trigger happens, you notice that something is happening and begin to worry. That worry increases your anxiety, which causes your body to pump out fight or flight hormones.
Those hormones prepare your body to fight off a danger, or run away from it. They cause your heart rate to increase, your breathing to become rapid, your muscles to become tense, you sweat more, and your vision narrows. Sound familiar?
Of course when your body reacts so strongly, you begin to worry even more and even start to believe that you’re dying, or going crazy, or losing control, etc. That scary thought makes you worry more, and have more anxiety, and have an even stronger bodily reaction.
And that cycle spirals until the panic attack completes itself, usually around 15-20 minutes. And then you’re exhausted.
The good news about panic attacks
Hard to imagine there is anything good about these scary, uncomfortable moments. I won’t try to persuade you they’re beneficial, but I do want you to know that they at least AREN’T HARMFUL!
Though it feels like you’re having a heart attack, there’s nothing unusual happening to your heart. While you might feel like you’re going crazy, your mind is still completely sane. Even the thought of passing out is highly unlikely to actually happen.
They are uncomfortable, but not dangerous.
What that means is you don’t NEED to DO anything during a panic attack. It’s okay to let it pass over you like a wave without fighting it. In fact, fighting to make it stop often makes it even stronger!
The problem with avoidance
Most people who know specific triggers for panic attacks do everything they can to avoid those triggers. Ironically, avoiding those places or situations makes your anxiety that much higher when you encounter them unexpectedly and can lead to stronger panic attacks!
Avoidance can be really problematic as a control strategy because after enough time goes by, people with panic disorder end up avoiding more and more people, places, or situations. Their world shrinks to where they’re only comfortable at home.
That is not a recipe for a meaningful, fulfilling life.
How to handle panic attacks
- Remind yourself that it’s not dangerous, just uncomfortable. You’ve done plenty of uncomfortable things before.
- Try to stay grounded in the present moment by focusing on things around you. As we already said, it’s not dangerous so focusing on your worry of having a heart attack isn’t necessary.
- Slow, deep breaths can help (for some people this makes things worse, so stop if you have that experience). You’ve already acknowledged you’re safe, but uncomfortable, so deep breathing can help you feel a little more comfortable.
- Try to let the panic pass like a wave while you continue to do whatever you were already doing. As I noted earlier, you don’t need to do anything to make the panic attack pass. That will happen on its own so you can either calmly let it pass, or continue to work.
- If it goes down and then comes back, just keep using the skills listed here. Nothing is wrong, that is not unusual, you will still be okay!
- Keep a journal where you record the experiences you had during the panic attack. This helps you to not avoid thinking about it, and also to track the intensity over time.
There you have it, six tips to getting through panic attacks. From my personal experience I know just how scary they can be, but I also know they don’t need to control your life.
I hope that these tips will help you handle your next panic attacks a little better. But if you just can’t seem to do it on your own, please reach out for a free consultation.
I’d love to chat with you about the different ways we can help bring a little peace back to your chaotic world.