Do you ever suffer from panic attacks? Here’s a likely scenario.
You’re at the grocery store on Friday night after a long, stressful week at work. You’ve been chugging coffee all day to help yourself through the mountain of stuff to do that you still aren’t finished with. You get in your car with a trunk full of perishables, turn the key … and your battery is dead.
Suddenly, you feel sick and little dizzy. You start feeling like you need air as if you’ve been holding your breath. But you can’t seem to breathe deeply enough, and you begin gasping. It feels like a python is wrapped around your chest, squeezing you to death.
Perfect. Now you’re having a heart attack.
Except, you aren’t. The paramedics arrive and don’t seem overly concerned. You spend a long night in the ER only to be told that you’re probably fine and just had a panic attack.
If you’re lucky, you’ll only have one experience with this very scary ailment. But many people become very familiar with panic attacks over the course of their lives. Thankfully, there are ways to cope.
What You Need To Know To Overcome Panic Attacks
1. The Symptoms
One of the cruelest realities of panic attacks is that they mimic cardiac problems. How perfect is that? You’d be convinced something was horribly wrong even if your chest didn’t hurt, but these physical symptoms are the icing on the cake:
- Shortness of breath (one of the most common symptoms)
- Light-headedness or dizziness
- Chest pain or tightness
- Rapid heartbeat
- Numbness of the face or extremities
- Feeling like you are about to die or that something is seriously wrong with you
Anyone who has worked in emergency healthcare for a while can tell you how often people think they are dying when they are just having a panic attack. That is not to say you should ignore any these symptoms, but if your physician gives you a clean bill of health (or three) it’s likely that your physical health is not the issue.
2. You Aren’t In Danger
It may help your peace of mind to know why these symptoms appear. The feeling of suffocation or shortness of breath, also called “air hunger,” happens because your body is in fight-or-flight mode.
Imagine that you are a cave-person getting chased by a tiger. In this situation, you need to run fast. Really fast. So, your fight-or-flight response kicks in; you automatically start breathing faster and harder, taking in enough air to fuel your escape.
For a cave-person, that’s great. In fact, for anyone in actual danger, the fight-or-flight response can be a life-saver.
But if you’re at home — or worse, out in public — having a panic attack, you don’t actually need all of that air. Your body is just telling you, “Breathe harder! More! More!” Hence, you feel like you can’t get enough air. You hyperventilate and grow lightheaded.
The fight-or-flight response is the main culprit in all the physical symptoms of a panic attack. Adrenaline causes you to sweat and shake, and muscle tension causes your chest to feel tight because the muscles around your ribs are contracting.
3. It Feels Very Real
If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you know very well how overpowering the sensation is. Even if it’s your 100th go-around on this wonderful thrill-ride, you know that rational thought by itself is about as effective against your anxiety as a pool noodle is against a brick wall.
It’s important to remember that the apparent reality of danger is what makes a panic attack what it is. If it wasn’t convincing, it wouldn’t be scary, and it wouldn’t be a panic attack.
It’s so hard for us to understand. Our brain tells us how to get around in the world, and if we didn’t trust what it tells us, we wouldn’t be able to live. It’s so difficult to believe that it can lie to us like this. But the acceptance of this reality is necessary to overcome panic attacks.
Some people can be quite condescending if they have never experienced an anxiety attack. From their perspective, a panic attack sufferer seems like a child who is screaming about a small splinter in his hand. The only way to deal with this is to not waste your time on these unsympathetic people.
4. You Shouldn’t Ignore It
Distractions can be very helpful during a panic attack. But the search for distraction shouldn’t give way to denial. The harder you try not to think about something, the more you are going to think about it. Trying to pretend like you are not having a panic attack will probably just make it worse.
5. You Can’t Fight It
With the last point in mind, know that you can’t just think your way out of a panic attack. In fact, when you try to fight it, you will probably only feel worse once you realize the futility of what you are doing.
The best thing to do? Take simple, consistent steps to calm your body down. In turn, your mind will calm down.
What does that mean? Earlier, we talked about the automatic fight-or-flight response. When you have a panic attack, your body thinks you are in danger. The trick is to convince your body that you are not in danger by working against the fight-or-flight symptoms.
6. You Have To Take Action
One of the most effective ways to calm yourself is to practice deep breathing. Instead of the shallow, rapid breaths that you unconsciously take, you must take slow, deliberate breaths with your diaphragm. Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” might take some practice, but it’s great for your health overall.
The next step is to consciously relax your muscles. Try as hard as you can to focus on releasing tension from head to foot. It probably won’t happen immediately, but this offers a great distraction as well as a way to lessen the panic response.
You might find that walking around helps. People naturally pace when they are anxious. You could go for a walk around the block or pace around in your room. Eating a light snack, playing video games, or listening to your favorite music may also help slow down panic attacks.
If your anxiety attacks are truly debilitating, you can get a prescription for benzodiazepines or antidepressants. The former are dangerously habit-forming but also extremely effective. They are central nervous system depressants that attack the problem at its source. Some antidepressants such as citalopram have been shown to have a positive effect on those with panic disorder.
7. You Just Have To Wait
Again, this might seem to contradict the last point, but often the passage of time is the only way to get over a panic attack. None of the above methods (other than medication) are going to stop it in its tracks. They will only speed up the process and make it end sooner.
8. Learn Your Triggers
After it’s over, reflect on what you were doing before it happened. While a universal cause for panic attacks has not been found, they can be triggered by environmental factors.
Psychedelic drugs, stimulants, marijuana, and alcohol can provoke intense anxiety in many people, even though marijuana and alcohol are conventionally considered to have stress-relieving properties. Withdrawal from drugs can also cause anxiety attacks. This is one reason why detoxing is best done in a rehab center.
Additionally, those with PTSD or agoraphobia might panic in response to certain situations. But if these situations include everyday things such as leaving the house or seeing a dog on the street, professional help is probably needed. You shouldn’t try to help yourself if you are unable to function.
9. You Aren’t Alone
It might be helpful to know that panic attacks are extremely common. Many before you have overcome panic attacks and you can, too. Over one in 50 United States citizens experience panic attacks.
Social support is one of the most helpful factors in mental health treatment. Don’t shy away from support groups and connecting with others who also suffer from panic attacks.
10. Help Is Available
You shouldn’t feel like you are “crazy” (a horrible word regardless) or hopelessly maladjusted just because you experience this phenomenon. Maybe you have been affected by psychological trauma. It could be that your lifestyle habits are causing it. A trained professional can help you get to the root of the problem and treat it there.
Final Thoughts on How to Overcome Panic Attacks
Panic attacks are horrifying. But that’s all they are. By being equipped with the right skills and knowledge, you can overcome panic attacks and live a perfectly normal life. It’s even possible to get over them completely and never have one again.
All it takes is self-love and a series of deliberate steps. Don’t let your mind stop you from living your life. It will be difficult, but there is hope for everyone. Go out, get help, and make the change that will turn you into a happier and stronger person.