“For me, panic attacks often begin with a rush of heat and flushed face, intense fear, increased heart rate, and crying without significant triggers. For a long time, I wondered whether I could call what I experienced a panic attack, and struggled to “claim” my right to care and concern, assuming I was just being dramatic,” says Caroline Catlin, an artist, activist, and mental health worker, who frequently suffers from panic attacks.
Each individual experiences panic attacks differently; they are typically characterized by periods of extreme fear that cause physical symptoms such as a racing heart rate, sweating, or trembling. Sufferers may experience shortness of breath, headache, chest pain dizziness, and headaches. They may also be accompanied by feelings of imminent threat, harm, and sometimes even death, when in fact there may be no actual danger or cause for the panic.
Panic attacks often come on suddenly, heighten quickly, and tend to vary in intensity and duration.
Here is a video about what a panic attack can feel like:
Recurrent Panic Attacks
Whether it’s a factor such as genetic predisposition, major stress from a life event, or sensitive temperament, individuals that experience frequent and recurring panic attacks over a period of time, to the point that they interfere with daily functioning, are said to suffer from panic disorder.
Related to several other anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety, social anxiety or phobia disorder, panic disorder can be managed or possibly eliminated entirely with the proper treatment that usually involves psychotherapy, medications, or both.
Nearly 5% of all American adults will experience symptoms of panic disorder at some time during their lives. If you can relate, here are five tips to help you cope.
1. Recognize that you’re having a panic attack.
Understanding your symptoms and knowing what a panic attack feels like will allow you to recognize that what you’re feeling is temporary and will pass.
Experts say that the healthiest thing you can do is to acknowledge the panic attack coming on, and remind yourself that what you’re feeling is real anxiety. You can even practice a trusted, go-to response such as “I am ok” or “This is temporary,” if you feel a panic attack coming on.
2. Take deep, controlled breaths.
Hyperventilating is a common symptom of panic attacks so controlling your breath can help improve the situation.
“Your breathing plays an important role in managing the symptoms of panic disorder. Although you may not be conscious of your breathing process, it is likely that your breathing becomes accelerated when you are feeling nervous or afraid,” says licensed professional counselor, Katharina Star, PhD. She suggests taking fuller breaths, which will allow you to feel more calm and in control.
Try breathing in through your nose for a count of four, holding for one second, and then gently and slowly breathing out your mouth for a count of four.
3. Close your eyes.
Some people that experience panic attacks may get triggered by overwhelming environments such as a city street, busy shopping mall or a crowded bus. If you find yourself in a place with a lot of stimuli, close your eyes during your panic attack.
Literally shutting out the world around you will make it easier to focus on your breath and calm yourself down.
4. Shift your focus elsewhere.
What soothes each person varies, but it’s important to find something that will calm your mind.
Panic attacks may cause feelings of detachment from reality, so some find it helpful to engage in physical sensations that round themselves firmly in the present. This could mean feeling he softness of your clothing or running your fingers through your hair.
Others like to focus on one particular object in their sight during a panic attack, taking note of every nook, cranny, and detail as possible. This laser focused attention on something else can provide a valuable distraction from the panic attack.
It can also be helpful to imagine your happy place and picture yourself there. Whether it’s a sunny beach in the Caribbean, skiing in Colorado, or simply napping in your backyard hammock, see and think about every little detail. What do you see? What do you smell? Focus on each and every element, but remember that the place you’ve selected should be calm and relaxing.
5. Get moving.
Once you’ve gotten control of your breath and you’re starting to feel better, engage in light exercise. Endorphins will keep the blood pumping in exactly the right away, and will help boost your mind and spirit.
Because your body has been stressed, movement should be gentle like walking or swimming. The key is to engage in some sort of activity to get your blood flowing.
Watch this video for other ways you can calm yourself down during a panic attack:
Proactivity Can Help Reduce Panic Attacks
Though you may not be able to avoid panic attacks entirely, here are a few things you can do to try and reduce their reoccurrence:
- Seek the advice of professionals.
Especially if you suffer from frequent panic attacks, it’s important to get help from trained medical and mental health professionals who can guide you with treatment options and strategies.
Thankfully, panic disorder is highly treatable, but best handled under the advice of experts. Once you’ve been given a treatment plan, stick with it to prevent future occurrences or relapses.
- Be mindful of your coffee and liquor intake…and don’t smoke!
Caffeine can trigger nervousness, shakiness, and can lead to tiredness if you’re kept awake, while nicotine and alcohol can cause the jitters when processed.
Separately or together, all three can exacerbate panic attacks so it’s best to limit or even avoid them all together.
- Make exercise a priority.
We all know about the physical benefits of working out, but frequent movement can also reduce stress, a big trigger for panic attacks. Whether it’s a walk, yoga class or hike, try and do something active each day.
Says Dr. Kristie Leong, a family physician with a strong interest in nutrition and fitness, “Exercising, especially intense exercise causes lactic acid to be produced by the hard-working muscles. Experts believe this constant exposure to lactic acid through exercise trains the body to deal more efficiently with lactic acid – so less accumulates in the brain and triggers panic.”
- Practice your breathing techniques.
Regulating your breathing during a panic attack is not always easy, so Dr. Star suggests practicing your technique so that it becomes natural.
She states, “To get the most out of deep breathing, it is important that you practice regularly and at times when you are not feeling excessively anxious. If practiced often, you will also be able to use this technique when intense anxiety or panic attacks occur.”
- Slow down.
Equally as important to staying active and exercising, is also finding ways to calm your mind. This means slowing down. Do so by incorporating relaxation and mindfulness techniques into your routine.
Try a few minutes of mindful meditation each day or practices like yoga and tai chi, which calm both the mind and body. Research has shown that activities geared at relaxation and stress reduction have proven effective at decreasing the severity of panic disorders.
Remember that panic attacks are temporary, treatable, and the best thing you can do is to stay proactive and mindful about what calms you down should one strike. Be patient and gentle with yourself, and know that there are things you can do to cope with this disorder.
If you or a loved one suffer from panic attacks, and are looking for support or resources, please call the Panic Disorder Information Hotline at 1-800-64-PANIC (72642).
Click here to learn more about what The American Brain Society is doing by way of research around panic disorder and other neurological diseases.