We all have the ability to develop panic attacks. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It is normal and can happen under certain conditions, when we are overwhelmed by fear. What to do?
Panic attacks can be extremely frightening, and the experience can leave us with even more fear of them happening again.
This can become a vicious circle, and sometimes we are left wondering when and why it all started.
Reasons for panic attacks can vary and be triggered by phobias (irrational fear of objects, people, situations), current and past events and more. It is important to understand your own triggers and to find ways of resolving them. Counselling and therapy can assist with that.
In the meantime, here are some ways of helping you deal with panic attacks, when they occur.
I. As with so many things, I believe it helps if we can de-spook feelings that may cause us concern.
Let’s de-spook panic attacks, by understanding their purpose and message.
We all have different stress and fear thresholds, which can also change over time. Depending on what we are dealing with in our lives, the thresholds can go up and sometimes they go down.
A panic attack happens when we have well and truely exceeded our threshold, like a container that can take no more, or an electric circuit, that has been overloaded. Something snaps.
A panic attack is a way of letting go of excess fear, that has accumulated either over time, often without us noticing, or by a sudden exposure to an event, like a phobia or a sudden shock, like bereavement.
This can happen to all of us, especially when several stressful events happen at the same time, leaving us frightened, uncertain and with a sense of a loss of control (eg bereavement, unemployment, illness, relationship or financial problems).
If you are affected by frightening times, then here is some guidance.
When stress and fears have accumulated over time and we feel panic or have an attack, we often do not know why, because we are looking for a specific trigger, eg
I have never been frightened of travelling by train, but I have started to feel anxious and panicky when on a train.
In this scenario, the fear might not be related to the train itself, but to what travelling by train stands for, eg
I feel enclosed, I cannot breath, my space and freedom is restricted, I cannot get out, I am stuck, I have no control.
In this scenario, being on a train may trigger exactly the kind of feelings, which we experience too much of in our life, and being on a train may therefore trigger the overflow and panic.
Therefore, it is important to understand what is happening in your life, what is causing these feelings, work it through and understand the choices you have for helpful change.
With a better understanding of the context of our panic, we are in a better position to take charge.
II. If you have had a panic attack, then you are familiar with the range of physical sensations, including
- shallow breathing
- fear of suffocating
- increased heart rate
- fear of a heart attack
- muscle tension
- ringing in the ears
- feeling sick
Not everybody experiences these symptoms all of the time. But they can be signs of emotional overload.
III. Like a frightened toddler, who needs to be calmed down by soothing acts of comfort, we need to comfort ourselves. How?
- We need to deal with the symptoms and the attack in a way, that does not add to the overload, by panicking further in response to the panic attack. While very understandable, this is the exact opposite of what we need.
- Keep it simple.
- Do not fight and argue with yourself when you start to feel panicked.
- Remind yourself, that the attack makes sense, it is an overflow and all will be well in a little while. OK?
- If you can, get yourself into a quiet place, so that you reduce the stressful impact of your environment on your senses (eg noise, movements, smells). If you are in the street, then find a quiet and self contained space away from moving people, traffic etc, at least a doorway, leaning against a wall, and focusing on a quiet spot.
- Remind yourself that you are safe, that this will pass. The best way to do this is to have identified and rehearsed a simple sentence (in advance of any panic attacks happening) that conveys this message of safety and trust for you, like an affirmation, eg “All will be well”. It must be something that you believe in. Keep repeating it.
- While repeating this simple sentence, start steadying your breathing. This can be done in many ways, eg take a deep breath in through your nose and expand your abdomen, like a huge sponge. Hold the breath, then slowly exhale through your mouth and pull in your abdomen, like squashing a sponge. Do that a few times, to get your breath and heart rate under control.
- Remind yourself, you are doing the right thing, you are doing well, your body will calm down, your mind will calm down, the overflow will reduce.
- When you are calming down, do take your time before re-engaging with your surroundings or activities you have stopped. Avoid rushing back. You need and deserve time. If you are sitting down, slowly feel the seat against your body; gradually take in the view.
- Have something to drink, some water or a warm tea.
- Keep yourself warm and comfortable.
- When you are coming out of the attack and you know it is over, then really connect with that moment. You have done it! That is a fact. You have not died, you know what it takes to take care and to take charge.
- Praise yourself and remember what it feels like to have taken care of yourself. Remind yourself of this, next time you fear a panic attack and it will help regulate and turn down the fear. Because you know how to take care. It is a fact.
IV. If you have a lot of stress and anxiety in your life, then you also need to think about self care strategies.
Self care is not a luxury. It is essential. The more you use a car or bicycle, the more maintenance it will need. Why should it be any different with our minds and bodies?
- Identify what works best for you to create time out, to help relax your body and to reduce tension for you.
- Whatever you choose to do, do it with the intension of doing well by yourself. This will enhance your feeling of being in charge, looking after yourself and being safe.
- Keep an eye on your diet. Avoid artificial highs and lows and self medication.
- It is important, that you rehearse and get used to the idea that you can take care, should an attack happen. Being prepared can also help you stay calm.
- Get used to the sentence, message, affirmation we talked about earlier. Really connect with it, put your heart in it.
- If you have nightmares, then here are some coping strategies.
V. Be prepared in practical terms:
- If you are afraid of being sick, carry a sick bag with you and some wipes. You may never need them!
- Carry some water with you.
- If you are afraid of public transport or certain places, then rehearse where you can get off and choose to sit in a place, where you get less blocked in.
These are some suggestion. If you do some research on the topic of panic attacks, you will find a lot more. Play around with it, see what works for you, and feel free to adjust and change your panic comfort routine.
You are the best judge. Trust your intuition.
Dealing with panic attacks is one thing, understanding your specific triggers is another, and it is worth considering finding some help to address the underlying issue. Sorting it out, can be one big step towards living in peace with yourself.
Watch my video on coping with fear
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- The death of a therapist, coach or mentor – how to cope.