A panic attack is a sudden feeling of fear or extreme anxiety that happens spontaneously or might be triggered by a specific place, person, event, or object. The intensity of the feeling escalates rapidly and can last anywhere between five minutes to thirty minutes. During a panic attack, a person may feel as if they are having a heart attack due to chest pains, stomach pains, heart palpitations, and chills or sweats.
They may also feel dizzy, nauseous, numb, and detached from their surroundings. Whilst panic attacks cause no lasting physical harm, a person might be deeply impacted by a single occurrence of one, and might have elevated anxiety as they worry about a reoccurrence.
Research shows that an estimated 13% of the population in the United States will experience a panic attack at least once in their lives. Panic attacks that occur frequently (more than once every few months) may be part of an issue such as panic disorder, which is also frequently linked to a fear of public places (agoraphobia).
6 Ways to Cope with Panic Attacks
A person suffering from frequent panic attacks may require a medical diagnosis and an informed treatment plan. When they occur infrequently, it is possible to gain some control over the situation and learn to cope during a panic attack.
1. Getting a medical exam.
It is common to feel heightened anxiety after one or more panic attacks. You may wonder if there is a problem with your nervous system or if there is a deeper issue for which you may need counseling, therapy, or medication.
Perhaps you simply want the peace of mind of having a doctor’s report on your current state of health. This is a sensible thing to do as it will give insight into your situation. Sometimes we need to hear a doctor or professional reassure us that all is well after having examined the evidence.
A doctor will consider your genetic susceptibility toward panic attacks, and they will be able to determine whether the episodes are connected with any underlying health issues like thyroid problems or lactose sensitivity.
Being armed with medical insights will give you peace of mind, and may provide a necessary treatment plan to cope with possible future episodes, whether that is using medicine, therapy, or other techniques.
2. Learning to anticipate what’s coming.
The first time you experience a panic attack can be overwhelming and terrifying. Your nervous system prepares for some perceived danger by flooding your body with fight-or-flight hormones, your mind gets stuck on anticipating some disaster, and uncommon things may happen to your body, such as shivering, hyperventilation, or excessive sweating.
When you know the symptoms of a panic attack, you can rule out the possibility of some other event (like a heart attack or allergic reaction), and focus on coping with the episode.
After experiencing a panic attack, it may be helpful to recall some of the things that happened. For example, you may have felt frozen, had shallow breath, and felt excessively hot or cold.
No one wants to relive a traumatic or embarrassing incident, but taking note of these kinds of details can help you be aware of what is happening in the event of another attack. Being aware that it is a panic attack (and not something worse) will strip away one level of anxiety and allow you to focus on riding the incident out.
3. Breathing exercises.
Breathing techniques are something that can be incorporated into a daily routine to combat general anxiety and stress, as well as a tool to help bring calm during a panic attack. Breathing deeply in a structured way allows oxygen to flow into your bloodstream, which has the added effect of helping your muscles relax, your mind clear, and to calm your thoughts. Practicing them twice a day for ten minutes at a time can drastically reduce stress in your life.
Begin by closing your eyes, placing one hand on your diaphragm (the small hollow above your stomach) and the other on your chest, and take a deep breath in. You should feel your diaphragm push out while your chest remains still.
As you inhale, count to five in an unhurried way. On the count of five, your lungs should be fully expanded and you can begin exhaling slowly over another count of five. When exhaling, do so through your nose and this will help you control the exhale.
4. Focus exercises.In addition to the breathing tips, you can practice a focus technique that will also have the effect of calming your thoughts and relaxing your muscles. This is to be done separately from the breathing exercises, as it is best to focus fully on one exercise at a time.
In this one, you are going to “tune out” the details of the outside world and zoom in on the details of your body. This trains all wild thoughts in one direction and when practiced regularly, it can have a profoundly calming and grounding effect.
You are going to begin by getting into a comfortable seating position, preferably with no limbs crossed (although during a panic attack, you can still practice this exercise regardless of posture). Close your eyes, allow your breathing to slow, and begin by focusing your thoughts on your feet. Clench your toes and relax them, either on counts of five or freely.
Pay attention to any sensations you are feeling, whether remarkable or ordinary. Spend at least fifteen seconds on each section of your body, traveling up from your toes to your calves, thighs, hips, waist, stomach, chest, shoulders, neck, and head.
This “full body scan” focuses your attention on the things you can immediately feel or experience, and to some extent control. It causes you to become aware of the ordinary and extraordinary functions and sensations of your body.
At the very least, this exercise provides a focused distraction from the outside world and the threats that your nervous system may be alerting you to. Practicing this focus technique every morning (before or after the breathing exercise) is a peaceful way to start the day and move forward with gratitude or a renewed awareness of your body.
5. Physical exercise.
These are two words that some will flinch at and others will be happy to read. Physically exerting your body is a helpful way to burn off stress, work out tension, or simply experience a different sensation in your body.There is no single recommended form of exercise, seeing as everyone’s body and history with exercise is unique; what works wonders for someone may be awful for another. But anxiety and stress are kinetic emotions and they beg for an outlet.
What is important is that you choose a form of exercise you find acceptable, and become as consistent about doing it as possible. Health experts recommend at least twenty minutes of physical exertion per day.
Perhaps the thing you have been needing most to combat anxiety is to get outdoors, breathe in the fresh air, and get a change of scenery. In addition to focusing on expending energy daily, remember also to rest at least one day a week. Some activities, like walking, are a pleasant mix of physical exertion and rest, and those might be the best option.
6. Confronting your fear.
There are cases where panic attacks are triggered by a specific stimulus. This might be a person who hurt you, a place where you experienced a tragedy or any number of large or small triggers. You will know what the trigger is, and may try to avoid it at all costs. The problem with avoidance is that, while it may avert a panic attack, it does not guarantee that you lose fear about the object.
There are many ways to confront this fear, but it is recommended that you do so with the support of a loved one or a counselor. You may begin by journalling about the issue, exploring the ways it makes you feel and the effect it has on your mental state, placing yourself in a situation where you are face to face with your fear.
A panic attack will likely ensue, but it will be one over which you have some degree of control. You may use the experience to practice your calming techniques, as well as to learn how you have grown.
Anxiety and panic attacks can be debilitating, but there is help and hope for you. You don’t need to know what exactly is happening to you or where to start to begin helping yourself. Reaching out to a counselor for help is the best place to start.
When you contact us, we will connect you with one of many trained counselors and therapists, and after meeting with them, you will have begun your journey toward emotional wellness. You can be free from the debilitating effects of panic attacks, and all you need to do to begin is reach out to someone today.
“Trees at Sunset”, Courtesy of Dave Hoefler, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “The Scenic Route”, Courtesy of v2osk, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Green Leaves”, Courtesy of Goutham Krishna, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Metal Footbridge”, Courtesy of Tim Swaan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE
The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this article are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact one of our counselors for further information.