I have suffered from panic attacks all my adult life and possibly most of my childhood too, although I didn’t actually know what a panic attack was until my I reached my mid twenties. I was experiencing these terrifying episodes, I knew something was very wrong, I just didn’t know what it was. At my worst I was experiencing multiple panic attacks a day. I would just succeed in calming myself down from one panic attack, when a physical symptom like pain or dizziness, or an anxious thought would trigger another. This could go on for hours, sometimes all night.
What are Panic Attacks?
For anyone who hasn’t experienced a panic attack, you feel like you are going to die. I know that sounds melodramatic, but it’s the only way I can describe it. Your mind races out of control. Your thoughts dart around without any coherent message. It’s like having a weeks worth of anxious thoughts in the space of a few minutes. Your mind is bombarded, attacked. You feel like the world is closing in on you, it’s suffocating. Rational thoughts are replaced by irrational ones, you think everyone is staring at you, you think this feeling will go on forever and you think this is the end of the world.
Along with these thoughts there are the physical symptoms. You go through what’s called the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response refers to a specific biochemical reaction that both humans and animals experience during intense stress or fear. The sympathetic nervous system releases hormones that cause changes to occur throughout the body. Your heart races as adrenaline pumps around your body.
- Your heart rate increases
- You may start to sweat
- Your hands could start shaking
- Your vision may go blurred
- Hearing can become distorted
- Your skin can feel like its burning
- Chest tightens
- You feel sick
- You feel dizzy and disorientated
- Your senses are heightened
So what triggers a panic attack? Your guess is as good as mine. The frustrating thing about anxiety is it can be irrational, there isn’t always a ‘reason’. I’ve had panic attacks in the past that have been triggered by just one negative, anxious thought. Anything that can heighten anxiety levels can cause panic attacks like: new situations, stress, negative thoughts, feeling out of control, deterioration in physical health or new medication.
Having a panic attack can feel like the most frightening thing you have ever experienced. The thought of having one can affect your daily life and even stop you from doing ordinary things or going to certain places. But there are ways to lessen the severity and reduce the length of panic attacks. Here are a few strategies to try:
1. Deep breaths
Breathe in and out very slowly. If it helps, close your eyes. Really concentrate on your breathing. If you have trouble concentrating on your breaths you can download an app that can help you to focus by listening to a guided meditation or breathing exercise. Here are some free guided meditations that could help:
I bought myself a heart rate monitor that sits on the end of my finger (Fingertip Pulse Oximeter). While concentrating on my breathing I play a game of trying to lower my heart rate. When I see the figure drop I know I’m gaining control of my panic attack. It gives you something else to focus on. It also records your oxygen concentration level. Your chest often tightens when you experience a panic attack and it can feel like you can’t breathe. Just seeing that the oxygen levels in my blood are normal calms me.
2. Focus on your surroundings
Look around, what can you see? Chose something to look at, a bird maybe, watch it, where is it going, what is it doing? Distract your mind by making up a story about it. Let your imagination concentrate on that rather than you.
3. Repeat the alphabet
Take a really deep breath in between the letters. Maybe before moving on to the next one, think of something that begins with that letter. This sounds simple, but often it’s simple things that distract your mind and relieve those physical symptoms too. I play what I call ‘The alphabet game’. Pick a subject, for example, fruit. Work your way through the alphabet finding a word that begins which each letter. A- Apple, B- Banana, C- Cantaloupe etc.
4. Count things
This is another distraction method. If you are on a train or a bus, try counting the seats. You will be surprised how your breathing can slow when you are concentrating on counting things. If you are at home, count all the things in the room you are in.
5. Think of an uplifting quote
One that makes you feel strong or calm. Repeat it over and over until your breathing slows and you start believing it. Don’t underestimate the power of those words.
Remember you are never alone,
Never forget that you are loved,
Never doubt that someone truly cares for you.
6. Listen to music
Make a playlist of songs you love so you can play it when you are having a panic attack. Have that playlist handy so that you can just pop your headphones on and use the music to get you through the attack. Music has an amazing way of lifting us when we are down, it can transport us to a place or time where we feel safe and calm.
Create limericks or repeat ones you have already created. I like the rhythm of limericks. When my heart is racing I repeat the words in my head in time to my heartbeat. There is something about rhyming words that pleases and calms me. Creating new limericks makes me concentrate on words and rhymes rather than the panic attack, it’s a great form of distraction. Also humour is an effective way of dissolving anxious thoughts.
There once was a woman called Jo,
Who wouldn’t go out in the snow.
Afraid she might fall,
She built up a wall,
And waited for winter to go.
There once was an Old Boy from Diss,
Who loved to go out on the p*ss.
He’d drink to he’d fall,
Then curl up in a ball,
And dream of the girl he might kiss.
8. Mindfulness- facing your fears
Rather than distracting yourself from the panic attack, let yourself ‘feel’ it, face your fears head on.
Most of these strategies are forms of distraction but sometimes you need to face the fear that has triggered the panic attack, head on. Challenge your fears and thoughts, and allow yourself to feel those fears. Be curious about how the panic attack feels, and then try to find a solution to the problem you are faced with. Focusing on one symptom or fear at a time, letting yourself ‘feel’ that symptom, being curious about it and analysing it, actually makes it seem a lot less scary. It also gives you something else to focus on rather than the negative thoughts.
*Focus on the strongest fear or negative thought you have at that time.
Challenge that fear
Why do I fear it?
How does it make me feel? Scared? Sad? A failure?
What’s the worst that could happen?
What steps could I take to avoid it?
Can I learn to accept feeling this way?
*Your racing heart beat.
How does it physically feel in your chest?
Feel the vibrations.
Try to imagine how your heart looks inside your body.
Try to remember the function the heart has in your body.
I also find myself thanking my heart for being so strong.
Panic attacks can be frightening but they are also exhausting. Once you have recovered, take some time to rest and recharge. Do do something you know will make you feel good and practice some self-care. Congratulate yourself on surviving another panic attack. Remember celebrate each little achievement. Take care x
Do you suffer from panic attacks? What coping strategies do you use?
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