Panic attacks are downright frightening. I’ve had my fair share over the years, and today I want to talk about some of my best strategies for coping with them. If you’re in the midst of heightened anxiety or just simply seeking support, know that I am WITH you. Here are 5 ways to cope with a panic attack.
I’ve had my fair share of anxiety and panic attacks over the years. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a full-blown panic attack, but I was struck by a couple this week. Like, more than one. It was awful. They were alarming and unexpected, and even though I know full-well what a panic attack feels like, it still took me a little while to realize what was going on.
What I mean is that because panic attacks can come on so suddenly and without warning or even any apparent reason, our brain reaches for the most plausible explanation as to why this is occurring. But the problem is that our thoughts about it aren’t rational. Instead, they tend to lean towards unreasonable fear and worst-case scenerio’s, such as having a heart attack, losing our mind, or being on the brink of death.
What are Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks are sudden, short-lived episodes of very intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms like a racing heart, shortness of breath, dizziness, chills, numbness or tingling in your extremities (this can be caused by hyperventilation), trembling, and feelings of detachment from reality, which I’ve personally experienced (and it’s terrifying). Panic attacks usually come on without warning or any apparent reason, although they can also be caused by triggers such as phobia.
This was exactly what my panic attacks involved this week, accompanied by uncontrollable crying, impending doom, and the worst fear of them all: that this wasn’t going to go away. I hate that fear so much. I’ve felt it before, but when you’re in the midst of a panic attack, the idea that all the scary feelings will last for the rest of your life is very convincing. So much so, that in my experience, within the span of just a few seconds I’ve not only convinced myself that I’m having a heart attack and I’m about to die, but I’m also mourning the loss of my normal self and the “way things used to be” in my life. You know, before this whole panic attack thing started 10 seconds ago. It’s just a complete rollercoaster of emotional turmoil wrapped up in one hellish package.
How to Cope with a Panic Attack
So, what can you do?
If you’re reading this right now and are either in the midst of heightened anxiety or just simply seeking support, know that I am WITH you. I know exactly how panic attacks feel. And I promise–you’re going to be just fine.
Here are my best strategies for coping with panic attacks. Please note that I’m not a psychologist or mental health professional, these are just what have worked well for me.
1. Remind Yourself That it’s a Panic Attack, and It’s Temporary
When a panic attack comes on, try to remind yourself that it is only that: a panic attack. This is temporary, and not permanent. You haven’t lost yourself, you aren’t going to feel this way for eternity, and you’re just experiencing some fear. I know it can seem impossible that you’ll feel better soon, but you absolutely will. This WILL pass. Recognizing what’s happening can help you put it into perspective.
2. Accept, Don’t Resist
What I find immensely helpful during a panic attack or even just general heightened anxiety, is accepting the feelings (fear, panic, overwhelm, doom), instead of resisting them. The thing is, when we resist those feelings by being afraid of them (yep, you can be fearful of fear itself), they tend to strengthen. The more you give those thoughts and feelings life, the more they take over. I’ve experienced this first-hand.
What I do here is very plainly tell myself something along these lines: “Hey, I’m feeling anxious right now. Cool. What a strange feeling. Oh well, I’ll just ride the wave.” This is a small example, but the idea is to make those scary feelings less important. They’re just feelings and they don’t need to control you. Once you try caring a little less, the grip of fear loosens and it can dissipate easier.
3. Breathe slowly and deeply
Deep breathing exercises are perhaps the most effective coping strategy available in the midst of a panic attack. When we’re anxious, our sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) is in overdrive. By breathing slowly and deeply, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system. This is the branch of our nervous system that’s responsible for “rest and digest”. It’s basically the calm, cool, collected part of us.
Try inhaling for 4 seconds and exhaling for 4 seconds, repeating as many times as needed. Remember: the key is to do this slowly and deliberately. You want take control of your breath and the way your body is responding to the experience of panic.
4. Get Support
Having a supportive loved one — either in person or over the phone — to rely on when panic strikes can be very comforting. It’s important though to communicate your needs. Sometimes people think they’re helping by distracting you, telling you to calm down, or asking a lot of questions. If what you need is someone to simply listen to you, let you cry, or provide reassurance that you’re safe, then let them know.
Additionally, seeking professional help is invaluable if you’re experiencing panic attacks on a regular basis. Contact your doctor or set up an appointment with a therapist.
5. Tune into possible causes
Once you’re more calm, tune into what may be creating the anxiety for you. This might just be a quick check-in by asking yourself things like:
- Have I eaten enough today? Is my blood sugar stable?
- Have I had too much caffeine?
- What are the biggest sources of stress in my life right now?
- What has been weighing on me? What’s really on my mind?
- Where am I at in my menstrual cycle?
Tuning into these kinds of things can help us take action where needed to reduce our anxiety in the future.
I hope with all of my heart that at least one of these tips is useful for you, who is reading this. Remember that I can totally relate, and you’re not at all alone.
If you have any tips, I would love to hear them. How have you coped with panic attacks? Share your experiences below.