When I was growing up I had never heard of panic attacks, but in the last few years I have experienced several and during those horrible moments when panic takes over, the nasty physical symptoms and the surge of anxiety have made for some of the most unpleasant moments of my life.
The last time I had one, we were walking into a family wedding. My breathing became rapid, I was sweating, my heart was pounding and I felt sick and filled with a sense of dread that something terrible was about to happen. Even when it passed after 15 minutes or so, I was left terrified that it would return. It particularly scared me that it came on so suddenly and without any warning at all.
It is not unusual to experience panic attacks or anxious thoughts, but if they are beginning to affect the quality of your life, it may be time to do something about it.
Why we experience these attacks is still something of a mystery. Stress, a traumatic event, and inherited genes have all been cited as potential causes, but panic attacks can also be the result of medical conditions or physical ailments.
Panic is the body’s way of telling us that there is a need to get into ‘fight or flight’ mode, but unfortunately sometimes our minds see danger in everyday situations such as a bus ride, a dinner party or a work meeting. The anxiety that may be experienced before a work meeting is a good example: As our heart starts pounding, we feel difficulty in breathing, and start feeling sick, we may think “I’m going to throw up in front of everyone and have to leave this job”, or “I’m going to have a heart attack and collapse in front of all my colleagues.” Actually the symptoms themselves are harmless, but the anxiety that accompanies them tricks us into feeling that something terrible is about to happen.
Quite understandably, we then take pains to avoid certain situations and events, although this ‘avoidance behaviour’ often causes more anxiety in the long run.
If you have ever experienced a panic attack, perhaps some of these symptoms sound familiar?
Feeling that something dreadful is about to happen.
Feeling out of control and helpless.
Experiencing dryness of mouth.
Feeling you are going to faint, vomit or lose control of your bowels or bladder.
Feeling like you can’t escape or are trapped.
Feeling acutely embarrassed.
Feeling you are no longer yourself, or have lost touch with reality.
Feeling that you can’t breathe, or that you are going to die.
If you are experiencing any, of all of these, it might help to read the following suggestions. If the symptoms are particularly bad, or becoming more regular, I would also strongly suggest you seek support and speak to your GP, as medication can be helpful is some cases.
1. Write down a list of the situations that make you feel most anxious. Seeing them in black and white can help, as can seeing the possible patterns that trigger negative thinking.
2. Remember that the anxiety and panicky feelings, although horrible, are not harmful. The feelings will pass, as they have always done before, and are not life threatening. Construct a mantra around these facts that you can repeat to yourself when you feel panic rising.
3. Write down what happened when you last had an attack. What was the situation that caused it? How did your anxiety show itself, (feeling sick, sweaty, unable to breathe) how did you interpret those symptoms, and how may have you interpreted it instead?
4. Breathing is key in any panic attack. Try and steady your breathing and breathe slowly in through your nose until you reach the top of the breath, and then out through your mouth. When you breathe too quickly, (hyperventilating) this causes dizziness and tingling sensations which will make you feel more anxious. Normally there is a balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood. When we hyperventilate, this upsets the balance, causing those feelings of muscle weakness and nausea.
5. Exercise, eat healthily, sleep regular hours, and spend time relaxing doing things you enjoy. Practicing self care by using mindfulness and positive thinking techniques can be highly beneficial.
6. Don’t use alcohol, smoking or drinking coffee/strong tea to get you through anxious times as these are all stimulants. They will only lower your threshold for panicking and make you more vulnerable to an attack.
7. Practice overall relaxation. Lie flat on a bed and close your eyes. Concentrate on your lower body and your feet to begin with. Breathe in, tense your feet, and then breathe out and relax. Move on to your calves and do the same process, then your thighs, stomach muscles, arms, right up to your neck. Try doing this twice a day. Taking time in the day (or evening) for controlled relaxation has been shown to have positive results.
8. Remind yourself that human warning systems are primitive and outdated as they are what kept us from being eaten by predators in early human evolution. They are not designed to make rational judgements about how dangerous a dinner party might be!
9. Consider CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) which may help you ‘unlearn’ past ‘learnt behaviours’ that may help reduce anxiety. Panic attacks do not mean you have severe issues that need long term therapy, but short term CBT may be helpful.
10. Identify your personal triggers and focus on factors in your lifestyle that increase your stress levels. This is not to encourage avoidance behaviours, but rather target the areas that need work.
11. Try and limit your negative thinking. Read my post How to Stop Negative Thinking: https://somekindof50.com/2019/04/07/how-to-stop-negative-thinking/
12. Keep a positive journal which will help you recognise the symptoms and when they are likely to reoccur. Note the day and time of the attack, and rate it out of 10 for how bad the symptoms were and how how you coped. There are now apps available for tracking anxiety, if you prefer to use your phone.
13. Remember that the physical sensations that are produced when we panic, such as sweating, racing heart, trouble breathing or being dizzy are completely normal sensations, and we experience them every time we exercise intensely or spin around quickly. Remind yourself of the normality of this by doing some activity that gets your heart racing and your breathing laboured regularly, in order to overcome the fear of being in that state.
14. Try distraction techniques such as counting, (you can count anything, cars, houses, windows etc.), or keep a rubber band around your wrist that you can snap quickly when you feel anxious. This small sharp pain may redirect your mind away from spiralling into anxiety. Putting the television on or speaking to a friend may help, as can remembering a lovely holiday or a walk along a beach.
15. Try gently exposing yourself to situations that are likely to make you panic. Jot down 10 situations that cause you anxiety with the most terrifying at the top. Take the one that makes you least anxious and try some planned and controlled exposure. For example, if there is anxiety around taking a bus ride, challenge yourself to get on the bus and remain on for one stop. If this is too much, take a couple of trips to the bus stop and familiarise yourself with buses coming and going first. The most important thing to remember is that this needs to go at your own pace. Do not attempt too much too quickly. Take tiny steps and remind yourself that you are progressing daily. Where possible, take a friend or family member with you. Reward yourself when you feel you have taken steps, however small, towards your goal.
Anxiety and fear of certain situations will ultimately limit your choices in life and prevent you from having experiences that may be wonderful and fulfilling, so if anxiety is holding you back, think about committing to fighting it. It will be challenging at times of course, but you are stronger than you realise, and gaining control over panic will be highly beneficial in terms of your general well-being for the rest of your life. ❤️