Stop panicking. Period.
Don’t you hate it when someone tells you “Stop panicking” as if that suggestion will magically halt your panic attack? I know I do.
That is why, today, I am bringing you my best suggestions on what to do when you are having a panic attack.
But first, what is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a sudden onset of anxiety or worry that grips you. Panic attack is an overwhelming event and is accompanied by physical and emotional symptoms.
Panic attacks usually have the following symptoms:
- “Racing” heart
- Feeling weak, faint, or dizzy
- Tingling or numbness in the hands and fingers
- Sense of terror, or impending doom or death
- Feeling sweaty or having chills
- Chest pains
- Breathing difficulties
- Feeling a loss of control
Because of the kind of symptoms, people may feel as if they are having a heart attack or a stroke or are dying.
A panic attack can hit you anytime. One moment, you are watching TV, minding your own business and the next moment, panic is atop you.
The good news is that panic attacks are treatable.
Should I go and see a doctor?
If you have regular panic attacks, it is possible that you have panic disorder. It would be a good idea to talk to a psychiatrist about the situation. The doctor will prescribe you medicines and psychotherapy but you will still need to learn coping skills to deal with panic attacks. Try to use skills they teach you in psychotherapy with what I am sharing below and eventually you will develop your own mechanism with tools that work best for you.
If you do not want to go to the doctor or cannot afford to go to one or you feel that even though you may have had a couple of panic attacks, it’s not serious enough to warrant a doctor, then try and use the information to the best of your capability and review your decision to meet the doctor again in a month’s time.
3 Simple Truths
1) You are NOT dying
Even though it may seem that you are dying, you are not. Panic attacks usually last a minimum of 10 minutes and the symptoms start dissipating soon after. However, it is possible that your panic attack may last longer. The good thing is that it will not last forever and will go away eventually.
It is also possible that you might be panicking about having a panic attack and perpetuating panic.
2) Stop being scared of having a panic attack
You may feel like rearranging your entire life in a bid to stop having triggers that may begin a panic attack. It is a very common fear and avoidance is usually the first response from a majority of people.
That is a problem because:
- You cannot avoid a panic attack even if you do rearrange your entire life. The sad truth is that there’s simply no escaping it.
- A life rearranged to avoid any trigger is not a life, it is something which is a poor imitation of life. Our main focus should always be to lead a full life while managing our issues in the best way.
Stopping going out because the restaurant may give you a panic attack is similar to stopping learning to drive because you couldn’t manage the brakes right the first time. More exposure will help, not less but only with the right tools. (Like you wouldn’t attempt to drive again without learning from an instructor, you do not need to go to the restaurant again without learning to manage your attacks) And it is always a good idea to practice in a safe place before working the highways.
3) Don’t run away from it
This is a counter-intuitive tip but this is the only thing that helps. Acceptance is the key and the best response to a panic attack.
Who wouldn’t want to get away from the sweating, crazy palpitations and the fear that something is wrong? We all would but remembering that it will pass should be enough to start accepting that you are having a panic attack. Maybe it was caused by a crazy repetitive thought. Maybe it was caused by a physical trigger. Regardless of what happened, it is the truth of your reality for the next 15 to 30 minutes.
Trying to run away from it will only prolong it. The best bet is to accept that all the physical symptoms that you are experiencing are only short term and will go away soon.
Think of it like this. Let’s say you are lying down on a road and suddenly you see that there is a giant cloud to the left of you. It wants to pass over you and go to your right. But as soon as you see it moving towards you, you start running to your right in a bid to thwart it. But the cloud will keep chasing you; this may go on for minutes, hours or even days. But if you had just stayed there and let the cloud pass from over you, it would be gone in 10 minutes, 15 minutes tops.
Stopping panic attacks
Step 1 – Remind yourself of the 3 simple truths aka Will live, Will pass, Will embrace
You need to remind yourself that panic attacks won’t kill you, even though it seems they will. Now that you are not dying, remind yourself that this will pass soon and take all the uncomfortable symptoms away with it. Now that you know it will pass away soon, there is no need to run. Just make yourself at home and wait for it to pass.
Step 2 – Focus on your posture and breathing aka Power Pose and Belly Breaths
When you are having a panic attack, your posture would naturally be a shrinking one. You would likely be curled up in a ball on your bed or hugging yourself while trying to make yourself as small as possible. Your breathing would be shallow. You may even be crying because of the fact that it is so overwhelming.
This is the time to sit down and take the entire space available to you. Sit down on the sofa or your chair and instead of trying to be small, try to take as much space as possible. Send signals to your body that there is no threat. Instead of shallow breathing, start with a few deep belly breaths. All the time reminding yourself that this, too, shall pass.
Side tip – Not surprisingly, there’s an app for that. Calm Mind on Android is one I have personally used and liked.
Step 3 – Focus on the trigger aka Trigger,Trigger, Go Away, Come Along Another Day
There is usually something which has prompted the sudden panic. During the panic attack, it is not a good idea to work on the issue that caused so much panic in the first place. So, my suggestion is to write it down on a piece of paper or digitally. After you write it down, say STOP out loud and then, promise yourself to focus on it the first thing the next morning.
Remind yourself that nothing would happen if you don’t solve the problem immediately. It’s a good idea to let it go for the time being and come to it with fresh eyes the next morning.
(The next morning, you can use this small list of cognitive distortions to see how your thoughts were helping you panic)
Step 4 – Be mindful of your surrounding aka What’s This I Am Sitting On?
Panic attacks are mostly caused when our minds are stuck in the future. There is an endless cycle of “what ifs” and worst case scenarios running through our mind. In such a scenario, it is a good idea to remind yourself that you are presently in a different scenario. The present is different from the future you are thinking of, mainly because it is not threatening.
Come to the present moment. You are sitting on your bed and everything is fine. To help you in coming to the present, you can use the traditional 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. Name out loud :
- Five things you see
- Four things you hear
- Three things you touch
- Two things you smell
- One thing you taste
Repeat it as many times as necessary.
Step 5 – Relaxation exercises aka Come On, Peace
Once you are firmly in the present moment, try and do some relaxation exercises.
- Progressive muscle relaxation → Lie down or sit comfortably. Starting from your toes and progressing towards your head, focus on each part of your body and systematically relax it
- Muscle relaxation → Tense your shoulders, jaw, hands and relax them
- Take an ice cube in your hand and watch it melt
You can find a list of such exercises. Here I have shared only the ones that have helped me.
Step 6 – Hydrate aka Water, Water Everywhere
Remember to drink water. Try and avoid caffeine, liquor and smoking.
Step 7 – Keep a mantra at hand aka Mind Your Mantra
It is helpful to keep repeating a mantra in your head. Some possible examples are:
- This, too, shall pass
- I am at peace with this panic attack
- These are temporary feelings and will go away
- I accept whatever happens
- I am in charge of my own self. These feelings will pass.
Preparation For Panic Attacks
Sometimes, it is a good idea to be prepared before the next attack. Here are a few things which will hold you in good stead:
- Make mindfulness a practice
- Do regular pranayama or breathing exercises (download 5 free exercises from this page)
- Incorporate exercise in your daily regimen
- Talk to your psychiatrist about recurrent attacks and see if she prescribes something
- Cultivate a support group
A Tough Circumstance
Panic attacks are not easy. They are so overwhelming that a majority of people think that they are having a heart attack and go to the ER and not just once, but multiple times. When you are in a panic attack, life seems small. You enlarge the problem and at the same time diminish your power to adapt. But you are a powerful person and are born with everything you need to tackle those attacks.
Please remember the three basic truths – Will live, Will pass, Will embrace which is I will live, This will pass and I will embrace. Even then, it is difficult. You feel as if you are not in control of your own body and that is a terrifying realization. Acceptance is the key to moving forward.
This is my secret. I don’t mind what happens. – Jiddu Krishnamurti
It is difficult to manage our emotions when panic attacks, but it is not impossible. I hope these steps help you in managing your attacks better.
Please don’t forget to review your plan in a month and see if you need to see a doctor.
If you want new articles from Language of Mind delivered to your inbox, sign up here.