By Terri Finnigan, LMFT
Anyone who has experienced a panic attack can tell you that they’re pretty terrifying. Often, panic attacks seem to come out of the blue and can be completely debilitating. As if the “attack” itself isn’t bad enough, most people who have suffered from one, report feeling incredibly fearful that they’re going to have another one, especially at an inopportune time. If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, know that you don’t have to live in this fear forever.
Let’s start by defining a panic attack. A panic attack is a sudden onset of extreme and disabling anxiety, accompanied by physical symptoms, like the ones listed below.
Signs & Symptoms of a Panic Attack
- Palpitations or quickened heartbeat
- Abnormal sweating
- Trembling or shaking
- Instances of shortness of breath or feeling smothered
- Feelings of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal pain
- Dizziness or faintness
- Chills or hot flashes
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (feeling detached from his or her self)
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of death
Panic attacks can be caused by specific triggers like phobias, or can be totally unexpected. Because they are often traumatic and unpredictable, many people who have had one worry that another attack might be just around the corner. This worry can take up a lot of time and energy.
So how do you treat panic attacks, and how can you prevent them from recurring?
What to Do While You’re Having a Panic Attack:
Time needed: 10 minutes.
Here are a few simple steps to follow if you’re having a panic attack.
- Name It And Claim It
The first and most important thing to do when you’re having a panic attack is to recognize what it is. If you’re experiencing a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest pain, and/or any of the other symptoms above, you may be experiencing one. Panic attacks and heart attacks have many of the same symptoms. However, if you are 40 or younger, have significant anxiety, and no pre-diagnosed heart problem, it’s very likely a panic attack*.
- Breathe, Breathe, Breathe
Once you know you’re having a panic attack, breathe. During an attack, the chest muscles tighten (tightened chest muscles are the culprit of the chest pain, not the heart), and breath gets very shallow as a result. Try to take deep belly breaths, keeping your hand on your belly in order to feel it expanding as the breath goes in and out. Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth.
- Use Self-Talk
During an attack, your body is experiencing a heightened, but a false sense of danger. Use self-talk to remind yourself that you are not actually in danger, even though it feels like it. Remind yourself that these feelings are temporary and that you will get through it. Try repeating a mantra like, “All is well.”
- Try Distraction
Sometimes getting out of our heads is a great thing for our bodies. Try distraction! What might distract you is personal – maybe it’s social media, maybe it’s paying attention to your feet on the floor instead of your tight chest and racing heart, maybe it’s seeing how many times you can find the color blue. Whatever you think might actually do the trick.
After you’ve gotten through the panic attack, you will likely be worried about having another one. Be compassionate with yourself about this worry – panic attacks are traumatic and no one wants to experience trauma on repeat. Sometimes the worry of having another panic attack is more debilitating than the panic attack itself. When the worry is this intense, it can be hard to live your life as you did before.
How to Resume Normalcy
So how do you resume normalcy after a panic attack? I had a client who was only able to do the things she absolutely had to do – go to work and come home – after she experienced a traumatic panic attack. Together we worked to identify baby steps of re-entry into the world.
First, she went to non-stimulating places with a safe companion. When she grew more comfortable with that, she went to those same places by herself for a few minutes. We progressed in this manner until she was able to go to the mall by herself and even go out dancing, which was previously one of her favorite things to do.
We paired that with figuring out how she could decrease her feelings of anxiety before they turned into panic through mindfulness and cognitive behavioral techniques. By the end of our treatment, she no longer felt that she had to live in fear of another attack.
I had another client who struggled with Panic Disorder (having regular and recurring panic attacks) before we began working together. When I asked her if she still had panic attacks, she quickly answered no. Of course, my follow-up question was, “How did you get rid of them?”
Her answer was something I’ll never forget. She said, “I got so tired of being afraid, that I just told my panic attacks to come and get me if they wanted me so bad.” She never had another one again. There is something about this kind of surrender and radical acceptance that can be incredibly freeing.
Knowing what to do when you’re having a panic attack and how to avoid future attacks is invaluable. A supportive therapist can provide you with a safe space to process your feelings and fears, as well as a plan to move forward. And most importantly, a therapist can help you gather the tools to deal with your anxiety before it turns into panic.
*Of course, it’s always best to consult a physician to receive medical advice if you’re regularly experiencing panic attacks. Anxiety therapy can also help you learn skills to prevent future panic attacks.
Read more about panic attacks and panic disorders at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America here.
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