Panic attacks affect a lot of people and can feel very scary when they occur. They are characterized by sudden, intense feelings of fear and dread accompanied by distressing physical symptoms. Feeling a sense of doom and gloom and derealization (a state of feeling detached from your surroundings) can be quite unsettling.
It’s the physical symptoms, in particular, that exacerbate the panic episode, during these times, it’s common to experience faint or shallow breathing, sweaty palms, heart palpitations, trembly extremities, and mental fog. These symptoms, amongst others, can come on so quickly and with such force that they overwhelm the brain’s capacity to bring them under control. This preoccupation with distressing thoughts and physical symptoms keeps you stuck in the cycle of panic. The good news is, understanding what triggers panic attacks and having tools for effectively managing distressing thoughts and physical symptoms, will help you avoid needless suffering.
The Panic Attack Experience
When my clients talk about their panic episodes, they typically share an experience of having it “come out of the blue.” They may be engaged in everyday tasks such as driving or shopping at the market, or just sitting around not doing much, when panic suddenly and mysteriously erupts. This sudden, abrupt rush of distressing thoughts and physical symptoms overwhelms and disables a person’s ability to cope. The body’s fight-or-flight mechanism is in overdrive, with excessive stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) being released.
Experiencing panic attacks in specific settings (unique to each person) can lead sufferers to believe that their panic is “caused” by these settings. After all, if you experience panic while driving, it must be the act of driving that is causing your panic? Correct? It is this erroneous conclusion that leads many sufferers to avoid specific situations or events in order to ward off the next panic attack. While it’s true that the memory of having a panic attack in a specific place can “trigger an attack,” the specific place or event “is not causing the panic attack.” What’s causing the panic attack goes deeper than the trigger place or event. While helping clients identify triggers that lead to panic is helpful, identifying the underlying causes behind the attacks and the mechanisms that keep panic alive hold more value in reducing and, eventually, eliminating, panic. The plain reality is what keeps panic alive is the fear of having another panic attack. Being on guard for your next panic attack leads to anticipatory anxiety (the “what ifs”) which, in turn, increases the likelihood of another attack. This realization alone can go a long way in reducing panic.
A second reality is, as bad as you think the panic attack, it won’t kill you. In learning strategies for dealing with these attacks as they occur, you can gain increased mastery over your environment and any uncomfortable bodily sensations. And, eventually, your symptoms will subside. Worth mentioning as well, having a safety plan or safe place to go to (mentally or physically) when the panic episode is disabling, can also aid in your recovery process. As my clients struggling with panic disorder triggered by driving have heard me say, “If things really get that bad, you can always turn into a driveway or parking lot, shut off the car, get out and get fresh air.” In other words, you have options. You don’t have to throw yourself into the proverbial “fire” when you feel trapped.
Techniques for Dealing with Panic
When you are in the middle of a panic attack, it can feel nearly impossible to get it under control, but the truth is that it isn’t impossible. You can learn different techniques to manage the symptoms associated with a panic attack.
Deep breathing is a great way to calm down the symptoms of a panic attack. Getting control of your breathing is very important as most people in the middle of a panic attack breathe in a rapid or shallow manner. This can lead to rapid heartbeat and dizziness to the point where you feel like you’re going to faint. To practice deep breathing, all you need to do is take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, hold it for a few seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth. Be sure you pause in between each breath to avoid hyperventilating. You can do this in any position that is most comfortable for you, standing, sitting, or lying down.
Another exercise you can try is to do is relax your muscles. It is important to relax one muscle at a time. Progressive muscle relaxation is done with two steps. The first step involves tensing your muscle groups one at a time. Then, release the tension from each muscle one group at a time. Make sure to pay attention as you tense and release. In contrast to tensing each muscle before relaxing each muscle, you can also tell your brain to send messages to each muscle (and each muscle group) to relax. There are numerous videos and podcasts that will guide you in this process.
Therapy to Manage Panic Attacks
In trying some of the strategies previously mentioned, you may still find yourself distressed with panic to the point where a number of daily activities are curtailed or avoided altogether. The troubling fact is, curtailing or avoiding trigger events or situations can generalize to other areas of your life.
The good news is, you don’t need to go it alone. At the Counseling Center for Growth and Recovery, we offer a proven and effective approach towards helping persons struggling with panic disorder, generalized anxiety, and other anxiety disorders to experience joy and purpose in their lives.
We are ready to help you or a loved one every step of the way. Now is the time to get the help you need.