Panic attacks are scary.
Your heart is thumping out of your chest. You can’t breathe. You feel nauseous, and have a huge sense of dread and disorientation. You may even feel that you’re having a heart attack and that you might die.
And they are increasingly common, among increasingly younger people. One in 75 people will experience one or more panic attacks at some time.
So what is happening? What is going on when you suddenly, for no apparent reason, can’t breathe and feel like you might die? Understanding the answer to this question can really help in dealing with panic attacks.
Medically, a panic attack is an episode of intense fear, triggering a massive release of adrenalin in your body. Adrenalin makes your heart beat hard and fast. Your muscles tense up and your breathing gets tight. Your guts churn and you stop thinking clearly.
A panic attack is an extreme version of what is known as the “fight or flight” response. This evolutionary mechanism kicks in to remove us from life-threatening situations. Except now there is no such threat. In the throes of an attack, however, you can sometimes feel like you’re going mad. These thoughts themselves further trigger physical responses and the feelings of dread, disorientation and panic. It becomes a vicious cycle.
So what can we do?
- Understand the mechanism. Being able to explain to yourself what is going on physiologically helps orientate you and ground you. “Ok, this is chemicals in my body on overdrive. This will pass”.
- Learn to breathe. Yes, you’ve been doing it since the day you were born, but are you in touch with your breathing? In the runup to a full-blown panic attack, you might start hyperventilating, a sign that you feel anxious. This reduces the level of carbon dioxide in your blood and gives you feelings of pins and needles, even numbness, and dizziness. This makes you panic more. Learn to be more in touch with your breath moment by moment. Recognize the warning signs of increased and shallow respiration. Slow it down. Count to ten with the “in” breath, ten with the “out” breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Slowly.
- Recognize your triggers. Develop a sense of gentle curiosity and honesty about what makes you anxious, and what triggers your attacks. In the immediate moments of an attack there may not seem to be a trigger, but there will have been a slow buildup of anxiety prior to this. Caffeine and nicotine are well known chemicals that mimic the physiological changes of a panic attack in your body. Cut them out. Alcohol alters your mood and makes you more susceptible. Watch out for using alcohol to reduce social anxiety. It will bounce back on you.
- Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep.The sleep deprived brain is more easily triggered, especially if you then kick yourself awake with coffee. Get regular exercise. This releases tension both mental and physical. You are more grounded in your body and less likely to get caught up in self-destructive thought patterns that feed a cycle of worry, anxiety and panic. Practice mindfulness, yoga, meditation. Slow down and smell the roses.
- Talk about it. Reduce the pressure on yourself by talking about it with trusted friends and family. You will be surprised that your openness allows others to share their problems. Normalize it. Have it be ok. You are not mad. It’s not a pleasant thing to have happen but you are not alone. Most, if not all, people have demons inside they are working with. It’s time to destigmatize these things, and remove the pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect.
- Seek help. Talking to someone who can help you understand what is happening, and give you tools to reduce anxiety generally, is fundamental. It is aways good to explore what makes you tick in a safe, compassionate environment and this self-awareness will improve your health, mental, emotional and physical. Panic attacks are not the end of the world. You can learn to get through them, and will go beyond them.
Learn. Grow. Fulfil.