What is a panic attack?
If you suffer from anxiety or a long list of other mental illnesses, panic attacks might be something you experience on a regular, or not so regular basis. For each person, panic attacks mean something different, but the outcome is often the same.
Unlike everyday anxiety, panic attacks are extremely difficult to cope with. They come on suddenly, causing feelings of intense fear that are capable of triggering physical responses, even though no real danger is present. Panic attacks often spiral, leaving the victim feeling as though they’re dying or losing control of the real world around them. Elevated heart rate, sweating, chest pain, trouble speaking, breathing, or thinking, confusion, and outright panic are all common symptoms.
What’s actually happening?
Everyone has a sympathetic nervous system and a parasympathetic nervous system. Your parasympathetic nervous system is what reminds you that you’re hungry or over-tired. Your sympathetic nervous system activates what’s commonly known as the fight or flight response. This is what helps people survive traumatic events or life-threatening experiences.
Imagine you’re walking home from the bar and a dark hooded figure blocks your path. Your palms are suddenly sweaty, you’re overly alert, and your heart is pounding right out of your chest. Fear starts to take over. Now you have two options: fight the hooded figure or run away. That’s the fight or flight response.
During a panic attack, your sympathetic nervous system is triggered, causing higher amounts of adrenaline, cortisol, and endorphins to be pushed throughout your body. These changes help us survive legitimately dangerous situations, such as an animal attack that leaves you running for your life. However, when the response is triggered while you’re trying to sleep at night, it leads to an entirely different and distressing experience.
What can you do?
From my experience, there’s no magical off switch that lets you bypass the attack without some serious effort on your end. Your body is reacting to something that’s set you off, whether you know what it is or not. And while you can’t always control that the attack is happening, you can control how you respond.
The most basic tip of all: breathe. Panic attacks often cause the sufferer to breathe uncontrollably, and in some cases, even hyperventilate. But this erratic breathing pattern only feeds the fire. Stop and let yourself breathe. Inhale for four seconds, hold it for two seconds, and exhale for four seconds. This pattern resets your brain and tricks it into thinking the danger is no longer present.
Helpful tip: If you are hyperventilating, use your hands and push your lips outward. By creating this small hole with your mouth, you’re forced to breath slower and deeper.
2. Accept the panic
One of the scariest parts of a panic attack is having no idea what’s going on or how to stop it. You think you’re dying…how can you possibly convince yourself you’re not. However, making yourself aware that it’s a panic attack will help you control your response. Remind yourself that you’re okay, that this will pass, and that you’ll survive. Once you know what’s happening, it’s much easier to focus on controlling hit.
Helpful tip: Keep a note on your phone for “panic attack control”. I keep this list of 5 things on it, so any time a panic attack strikes, I know how to handle it and can remind myself that it’s not the end of the world.
3. Have a happy place
As cliché as it sounds, building a happy place is an extremely helpful tactic for anyone with anxiety or panic attacks. When the panic attack is in full swing, shut it down by escaping to the one place you know inside and out. Close your eyes and imagine it. How does it smell? Are you touching anything soft? Is the sun beating down on you or are you cooling in the shade? Can you hear music, waves, birds? Imagine every aspect of this place until your mind and body are able to relax.
Helpful tip: Use the same happy place every time. This helps you build it more quickly in your head and your mind will come accustomed to calming down the second your mind takes you there.
4. Find focus objects
Focus objects help take the attention away from the panic, and onto something else. It’s all about adjusting your brain to think about something other than the false impending doom you’re feeling. Take a moment and survey your surroundings. Maybe there’s a blanket on the end of your bed. What colour is it? What does it feel like? Where was it made? What fabric do you think it is? Is it heavy? When did you buy it? Think about that object and only that object until you regain control.
Helpful tip: Use your senses to find objects. Find five objects you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste. Repeat if you have to.
5. Have a panic buddy
Sometimes there’s nothing more helpful than having someone sit through the panic with you, to remind you that you’re not going to die and that it will pass. That’s why a panic buddy is so important. They’re the one person you can call or bother when you’re feeling a panic attack coming on. Maybe it’s your mom, your brother, your best friend, or a co-worker. It could be your husband or wife, it doesn’t matter. Don’t feel as though you need to do this all on your own and ask for help.
Helpful tip: Talk to your panic buddy before a panic attack strikes. Let them know what’s happening and ask if they’d be comfortable being your buddy. Share with them how you typically respond to panic attacks and what they can do to be helpful when it happens. Panic buddies are always more helpful when they’re prepared are equipped with the tools to help you.
I know how it feels to think you’ll never have a normal, successful, or independent life because of anxiety or panic attacks. I used to think I’d never get a good job because of it, or that I’d never have a normal love life. But panic attacks and anxiety aren’t what defines you. Knowing how to handle them is the first step to not letting them stand in your way.