Fear cannot be banished, but it can be calm and without panic; it can be mitigated by reason and evaluation. – Vannevar Bush
Help! I’m Having a Panic Attack!
Panic attacks are sudden uncontrollable bouts of fear that can be experienced at any time. They are brief surges of intense anxiety often enhanced by stress and worrisome thoughts. This anxiety can quickly get out of hand and turn into an uncontrollable panic attack. Within this state-of-mind, we tend to lose control over our thoughts and over our physiological responses. It’s as though your body is no longer yours, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Panic attacks can be triggered by certain phobias, by rapid and unexpected changes, or as a result of extended levels of stress. Panic attacks can also be triggered when you’re feeling apprehensive about something, or when your mind is dominated by unhelpful thoughts, memories and/or beliefs about the harmful consequences of external threats. Finally, panic attacks can surprisingly come about when you worry about experiencing a panic attack. Therefore in this scenario, you have a panic attack as a result of trying to resist having a panic attack.
The Symptoms of a Panic Attack
When you experience a panic attack, you will often show the following symptoms:
- You may feel nauseous, numb or lightheaded.
- You might experience strong chills throughout your body.
- Your heart will often begin pounding with force or you will feel discomfort in your chest.
- Your body and hands may tremble uncontrollably.
- You may experience hot flushes.
- You might begin sweating profusely.
- You may find that you have difficulty breathing. This normally manifests in a shortness of breath.
- You will often be riddled with thoughts of losing control of the situation.
- And finally, you may have a strong desire to escape the situation (fight-flight response).
These are typical symptoms of a panic attack. However, your symptoms may vary and could be different depending on the situation you are experiencing.
It’s important to keep these symptoms in mind. However, it’s critical that you do not obsess about these symptoms. They are there as a survival mechanism tied to the reptilian brain that helps you fight against, or run away from dangerous situations. It is, however, important to understand that the dangers you perceive are based on your personal interpretations of the situation. What your brain perceives as dangerous, might, in fact, be harmless. However, perception is what counts, and perception is the one thing that will determine how you respond. Therefore, if you desire to change how you respond, then you must begin by shifting how you perceive and interpret the events, things and/or circumstances that are causing you to panic.
What to do Before a Panic Attack
There are certain things you can do before a panic attack strikes that will help you better prepare yourself mentally for what’s to come. These moments you spend preparing can successfully desensitize you from the events, people, things and/or circumstances that might cause you to panic. In addition to this, the preparation you do now will help you handle stress, worry, anxiety and unexpected change with more thought and control.
Here are some suggestions to help you prepare yourself mentally and physically for the likelihood of a future panic attack:
Understand: Panic Attacks are Not Dangerous
It’s important to keep reminding yourself that panic attacks are not dangerous. Yes, the body does some strange things, and it might even feel as though you’re experiencing a heart attack, however, that’s not actually the case. Your body is just responding to perceived danger by activating the fight-flight response. It notices that there is an emergency and it needs to make sure that you are aware and prepared to survive this encounter.
The excessive adrenaline that is pumped through your body at the time of a panic attack is what makes you feel on-edge and somewhat out of control. This is a natural and normal experience to a perceived threat. Yet, it’s important to remember that it’s only a “perceived” threat. You perceive things a certain way and as a result, you react accordingly. Therefore, it would make sense that if you perceived things another way, that you would react differently.
If you do end up experiencing a panic attack, keep in mind that they tend to come and go in short bursts. Therefore, it’s important to feel secure in the fact that experiencing panic is natural, normal, not dangerous, and won’t last very long.
Expose Yourself to Uncomfortable Situations
You feel panic because you are potentially being thrown into an uncomfortable and unexpected situation that causes you to “freak-out” a little. This is understandable. Anything that’s new, unfamiliar or anything that you tend to fear and feel somewhat reluctant about can certainly get the adrenaline glands going and as a result, you may very well experience a panic attack.
If new things can do this to us, then how about things that we’ve done numerous times before. These things are not new or unexpected. They are now familiar and we become comfortable with the things we have done time and again over an extended period of time. And within this lies the key to desensitizing yourself emotionally from uncomfortable situations.
To desensitize yourself, you must expose yourself to uncomfortable circumstances that you might fear or feel uncertain about in small doses over an extended period of time. This essentially means taking chances and risks to stretch your comfort zone using small daily steps. Yes, initially you might feel somewhat uneasy and may begin to feel that adrenaline building up inside your body. However, with continuous exposure over time, this feeling will subside and will instead be replaced with the knowledge and certainty that you can actually get through this situation successfully without losing control of your emotions.
Probably the most important thing that will come about from this daily desensitization process, is that you will begin disproving your fears. You will start becoming familiar and somewhat more comfortable with the events and circumstances you are confronting, and this will shift how you think about things. This shift in perspective will encourage you to take even greater risks the next day, and the next day after that. And before you know it you will have taken a giant leap that will give you the confidence you need to work through this situation successfully without panic or fear.
To desensitize yourself, take small progressive steps daily. When you begin losing control of your emotions, take a step back and learn from the experience. Then once you’ve gathered your thoughts, take another small step forward and try again. You might not make a lot of progress today, however, with consistent effort, you will make plenty of progress over the course of a week or month. The key is to try. You have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Build Your Support Network
Everyone needs a strong support network. This is a network of friends, colleagues, family members, mentors, etc, who can help support you in times of need. Likewise, you can help support them when they need it most.
Your support network can successfully help you get through difficult emotional experiences. They can help you work through your stresses, overcome your worries, and even calm your anxieties. They can also help shift your perspective about events and circumstances. Maybe they will provide you with a new way of viewing things that will help convince you that there is nothing to worry about.
Build this support network over time by developing strong emotional bonds and connections with people. Help them out with their problems and emotional struggles, and they will likewise be there for you in your time of need. However, you have to be willing to reach out to these people and spend time growing and cultivating these relationships over many months and even years. That is when you will gain the greatest value from your support network.
Find Ways to Keep Calm
When you’re in “panic mode” the very first thing you need to do is to stay cool, calm and collected. And staying calm begins with your breath.
When you lose control of your breath, you lose control of your body, and when you lose control of your body, there is no turning back. Your first step is, therefore, to learn about breath control. Yes, actually jump onto the Internet and look for articles about “breath control”. Learning to control your breath will just make everything else so much easier, and will help put you in a more open and positive state-of-mind.
Another way to keep yourself calm during a panic attack is to practice progressive muscle relaxation technique. Normally when we’re in a state-of-panic, all our muscles tense up, and as a result, we find it very difficult to relax and ground ourselves. However, if you take the time to learn and practice progressive muscle relaxation technique, then this can provide you with the confidence you need to use this technique during moments of an imminent panic attack.
The final way to calm yourself down comes in the form of meditation. Meditation can help you gain clarity and peace of mind in times of emotional turmoil. However, the benefits of meditation come over an extended period of time. They come after several months and years of teaching yourself how to calm your emotions and settle your mind. This calmness is initially only found while you’re meditating. However, over time after months and years of practice, this calmness will be within you throughout the day, whether you’re meditating or not.
So, jump onto the Internet and do your research. Look for articles about breath control, articles about progressive muscle relaxation, and about meditation. These three calming techniques will help you significantly as you work your way to a more calm, centered and focused state-of-mind.
Develop Your Emotional Coping Skills
Panic attacks are often triggered when you are unable to handle the less-intense emotions you experience throughout the day. For instance stress, worry, anxiety, and fear are all common emotions that the typical person experiences that can often lead to a panic attack. It, therefore, makes sense that to ward off the possibility of experiencing a panic attack, that we must learn to better manage and cope with these four critical emotions.
Take time to gain as much knowledge as you can about each of these emotions, and then work on learning to cope with them more effectively on a day-to-day basis. Initially, you might feel a little reluctant and might not make a lot of progress. However, with persistent effort and dedication over time, you will develop the necessary coping skills that will help you manage these emotions successfully. And once these emotions are under-check, then you will be less likely to experience a panic attack resulting from one of these emotional experiences.
Addictions are never good for you. However, it’s just so easy to indulge in them when our emotions get out of hand.
Addictions such as alcohol, over-eating, caffeine, nicotine and recreational drugs have many side-effects and dangers. However, what’s less known, is that all of them will tend to raise your anxiety levels in the long-term. And when your anxiety levels are raised, this is more likely to trigger unexpected panic attacks throughout the day when you’re confronted with new or uncomfortable situations. This is very important because under normal conditions you might not experience a panic attack, however, because your anxiety levels were higher than normal, then this naturally puts your emotions into a tailspin, and caused you to lose control.
Avoid addictions and give yourself a fighting chance to take control of your panic attacks.
What to do During a Panic Attack
Okay, so you’ve worked on desensitizing yourself to uncomfortable situations; you’ve found ways to keep yourself calm, centered and relaxed; you’ve learned more about how to manage difficult emotions; you’ve built your support network; and you’ve steered away from addictions, but unfortunately you’re not quite there yet, and the moment an uncomfortable and unexpected situation arises you fall into “panic mode”.
It’s difficult to think straight when you are in the midst of a panic attack. Everything just seems out of control, and there appears to be very little you can do about it. However, you actually have more control then you may think. Here are several suggestions to help you take control:
Offer No Resistance
It’s kind of ironic that the first step to “taking control” is to offer no resistance. And yet, by offering no resistance you are successfully detaching yourself from the panic attack and becoming more of an observer rather than a participant who is experiencing the symptoms of the panic attack.
To resist a panic attack is much like adding fuel to the fire. The more you resist it, the more fuel you add and the higher the fire burns. On the other hand, to offer no resistance is akin to distancing yourself from the fire. Yes, the fire is still burning, however, you are now observing things from afar, and as a result, you are no longer as emotionally involved in the situation. You have become an outside observer, and from this perspective, you can do far more than you could closer to the fire.
Offering no resistance requires you just accept the emotions you are experiencing. Just let them be. Let them take their course, and progressively step away mentally from your body and become the observer rather than the person experiencing this emotion. Envision this experience through the observer’s detached perspective without judgment. Who knows, this change of perspective might be all you need to help keep your emotions in check.
Remove Yourself from the Situation
By offering no resistance, you have successfully removed yourself mentally from the situation. Now, comes time to remove yourself physically from the situation in order to provide you with a little time and space to clear your head and gather your thoughts.
To remove yourself physically from the situation, be sure to step into another room, or step outside, or inside depending on where you experienced the panic attack. Often an open space or environment is better than a closed, small and somewhat claustrophobic space.
Once in your new space, take some time to gain a little-needed perspective. Say to yourself:
I am calm and relaxed…
I am happy and peaceful…
The most important thing you can do during these moments is to be reflective rather than reactive. Therefore, don’t absorb yourself into the situation mentally. You have passed that stage. Instead, continue taking the observer’s perspective, and view the situation from an external point-of-view. Only in this way will you gain the proper perspective you need to get through this situation calmly and successfully.
Become Mindful by Grounding Yourself
If you are struggling with the previous two suggestions, then you might find it helpful to ground yourself to something more tangible. For instance, hold an ice-cube in the palm of your hand. This will create a distraction and will help you to become more mindful of the present moment instead of getting absorbed within your emotional reactions.
Using an ice-cube is a fantastic way to ground yourself, however, ice-cubes are not always available. As an alternative suggestion, you can simply pinch yourself. The pain of pinching yourself will bring your mind back to the present moment and may very well help you calm down. Once you’re calm, you will once again find that you have successfully removed yourself from your emotional experience, and can now view the situation from an observer’s perspective.
Focus on Something You Can Control
Focusing on something you can control, is essentially another way of grounding yourself. It might, of course, seem that during a panic attack, that everything just appears out of control. However, that is never the case. There are always things you can control. There are always things you can influence. And there are always things you can do that will help you work through your emotions successfully.
In order to gain control, you must focus on something outside of yourself. For instance, talk to someone about something random. It’s important that you don’t talk about your panic attack, but rather about other things. Alternatively, if nobody is there with you, try describing your surroundings aloud to yourself. Describe all the details of your environment, the colors, the sounds, the smells, etc. Another suggestion is to squeeze something, or throw a tennis ball up in the air and catch it on the way down. This simple activity convinces your brain that there is nothing really to panic about. You have not lost control. You are in fact fully in control, and can, therefore, work through this experience successfully.
Stay Calm and Centered
At times in order to stay calm and centered, it is helpful to do some controlled and proactive movements. This could mean going for a quick jog, jumping on the spot, doing some light stretches, or engaging in Yoga poses. It matters little what you do, as long as you engage your body in some way that helps break the pattern of your panic attack.
Once your body has been freed up to move in its own way, your mind will also be freed up and be more willing to let go of the emotions that were previously tying it down. Remember that the emotions you experience are closely tied to your physiological responses. Likewise, your physiological responses are tied to your emotions. One influences the other. Therefore, making adjustments to one will successfully influence the other. As such, when you make conscious adjustments to the way you use your body through stretching and exercise, for instance, your body should no longer feel that same emotional intensity. You are breaking the patterns, and this will help you transform your emotional experiences.
Become Engaged in Activity
Another way you can break the pattern of your panic attack is to engage your brain in another activity that has nothing to do with your panic attack.
When you’re in panic-mode, you become obsessed with the thing you are panicking about. This is the only thing that you can think about, and it becomes the most important and significant thing during those fleeting moments of panic. However, this doesn’t need to be the case. You can successfully distract yourself by doing something else — by involving yourself in another activity that will help stimulate your brain and keep you busy. You can, for instance, draw something on paper, or you can sing a song, or start picking up rubbish. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as you keep yourself busy, engaged and focused on something else.
Take Herbal Supplements
In order to help promote more calmness and less anxiety throughout the day, you might want to consider taking some herbal supplements (teas) that have been proven to have a calming effect on the body. Herbal supplements such as St John’s Wort, Passionflower, Chamomile, Kava and Valerian Root can help you stay calm and relaxed when your anxiety levels tend to get out of control.
What to do After a Panic Attack
After a panic attack, and once you have calmed yourself down physically and emotionally, take some time to learn from this experience in order to lay down a stronger foundation for the future. This period of self-reflection will help you to assess what happened, how you responded, and what you can do differently the next time around.
Here is a four-step process you can use to help you gain the most value from each panic attack:
Step 1: Assess What Happened
Your first step is to assess your panic attack by recording your circumstances, expectations, location, internal dialogue, what you felt, did and experienced, etc. This is important because you might find that your panic attacks only take place at certain times, within certain locations, or that they are triggered by specific things, or aggravated by the way you think and/or perceive a situation. Ask yourself:
What happened? What was the outcome?
Where was I when I had this panic attack?
What time was it? How is this significant?
What expectations did I have at the time?’
What did I believe about the situation?
What did I believe about myself within this situation?
Did my expectations lead to my panic attack?
What was I thinking at the time?
How was I talking to myself during my panic attack?
Why was I thinking and talking to myself in this way?
How was this potentially unhelpful?
How else could I have interpreted things?
What could I have done to minimize this panic attack at the time?
What could I do differently in the future?
Your objective here is to obtain a 360-degree view of the situation from all angles and perspectives. This will successfully help you gain the necessary insights that will allow you to identify possible patterns that could potentially help you avoid these panic attacks in the future.
Step 2: Challenge Yourself
You probably have a good understanding of the situation and a rough idea of what you could have done differently to minimize your panic attack. However, all this planning will be of little importance and won’t be very effective unless you take the time to challenge your experience by searching for contrary evidence that will help disprove the thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives you had at the time. Ask yourself:
Were my beliefs about the situation realistic and reasonable?
How were my beliefs flawed and unpractical?
How were my thoughts a hindrance?
How was my perspective of the situation unhelpful?
What other ways could I have viewed this situation?
How might another person have viewed this situation?
How could viewing things this way be more helpful?
Asking and answering these questions will help create doubt in your mind that will allow you to challenge your limiting beliefs and perspectives. Moreover, these questions can potentially open doors to alternate possibilities and different viewpoints that you might not have considered before.
Step 3: Shift Your Perspective
Now comes time to create a set of helpful thoughts and beliefs about the situation while taking into consideration the different viewpoints and all the evidence that you acquired during step two of this process. Ask yourself:
What’s a better way to think about this?
What must I believe about this in order to stay calm and collected?
How does all this make me feel?
Your objective is to rewire your brain so that you begin thinking about the things that cause you to experience a panic attack in more empowering and helpful ways.
Step 4: Desensitize Yourself
Finally, after all the hard work you’ve put into creating your new behavior, it’s now time to practice your new thought patterns by putting yourself into uncomfortable situations that would normally cause you to feel panic. And all this comes back to the act of desensitizing yourself to the experiences that trigger your panic attacks in the first place. Practice, practice, and practice.
This entire process will of course take time. You will, therefore, need to be patient. You won’t suddenly reprogram your brain overnight. This will take some effort, work, and dedication on your part. However, as with anything, as long as you’re willing to persist and persevere through these challenges, you will make good progress in the long-run and successfully rewire your brain.
Time to Assimilate these Concepts
Did you gain value from this article? Is it important that you know and understand this topic? Would you like to optimize how you think about this topic? Would you like a method for applying these ideas to your life?
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Gain More Knowledge…
Here are some additional links and resources that will help you learn more about this topic:
- 3 Things Panic Attacks Don’t Want You to Know @ Tiny Buddha
- 6 Ways to Stop a Panic Attack When it’s Already Happening @ Bustle
- 7 Steps to Stop a Panic Attack @ Uncommon Help
- 7 Tips for Panic Attack Prevention @ Calm Clinic
- 9 Panic Attack Myths We Need to Stop Believing @ Huffington Post
- A Psychologist’s 5 Essential Tips for Stopping a Panic Attack @ Mind Body Green
- How to Halt and Minimize Panic Attacks @ Psych Central
- Online Therapy for Panic Attacks and Anxiety @ Psychology Today
- Panic Attacks: What They Are and How to Stop Them @ Psychology Today
- Stop a Panic Attack with Emotional Freedom Technique @ Psych Central
- What a Panic Attack Feels Like @ Psych Central
- Why You Really Get Panic Attacks and How to Make Them Stop @ Mind Body Green