A train barrels toward you at eighty miles-per-hour. Your heart beats three times as fast as normal. Your pupils dilate. Your armpits are drenched in sweat and your stomach fills with adrenalin. The train, only a hundred yards away before, is now just fifty yards from striking your stalled car. Alone, frightened, and your body reacting to the intense sound of the train’s horn, you whip your seatbelt off faster than you’ve ever done before and dash from your car just three seconds before the train, breaks squealing loudly but not slowing, slams home.
You sit in the grass listening to the police officer. An ambulance pulls up by the side of the road, but you won’t need it. Your heart rate has returned to normal, your eyes are quiet, and you’re no longer sweating or feeling a stomach churning pain. You’re thankful and at peace knowing you’ve narrowly escaped death.
What was just experienced was a “fight or flight” reaction. Fight or flight occurs in situations where the individual may come to bodily harm if he does not act quickly to escape or defend. In this case, your fictional self decided to run away instead of facing the train, but for most of mankind’s long history, trains didn’t exist and many dangers would only chase after us if we decided to run away. Humans had to turn and fight, drawing from their bodily actions for extra balance, strength, endurance, and focus.
It is a normal, beneficial aspect of life, and has enabled many to escape death and live many decades longer than they would have otherwise. But in today’s world, unless we’re faced with escaping trains or other rare, wild disasters, we have no use for the fight or flight mechanism evolution has bestowed upon us for our own safety. This doesn’t mean that we no longer have it, though, as anyone who has experienced a panic attack can tell you.
In our new, safe world-where we have no use for fight or flight-we have no proper way to exercise the feelings to reduce the tension. We may walk down the street and feel “panic” for no reason other than our physiological makeup and will have no way to use it, no train to run from. These instances are called Panic Attacks and can be emotionally traumatizing events. In a panic attack, we are often at the whims of our own out of control bodies. Instead of a train barreling down on us at eighty miles-per-hour, it’s our own minds and stomachs and legs that seem to be the ones attacking.
A high heart rate, a fast racing mind, dry mouth, shaky legs, unstable balance (we may feel as though we’ll faint or fall over if we stand up), an upset stomach or even diarrhea. These are all symptoms of panic attacks. With a panic disorder, or an anxiety disorder such as Agoraphobia or Social Anxiety, we feel these intense feelings for no reason or in the face of a situation we are not used to. Going to the bank for an anxiety prone individual can seem like stalling on railroad tracks.
The difference is that, with the train, we have work to do. We have to get out of the car as fast as we can and escape. With a panic attack, we cannot fight or flee, but experience the powerful feelings until they pass, dwelling on the pain and wondering what is wrong with us.
What exactly happens during a panic attack? Our minds interpret bodily sensations at the outset of panic attacks, then with a release of adrenaline,
Many panic attack sufferers spend their days waiting for a panic attack to come. They mentally scan their bodies for signs of an oncoming attack. If they feel their stomach hurting, or feel dizzy, or their mouth is dry, they will interpret these feelings as an oncoming attack, prepare for it, and get exactly what they thought would come.
The best way to keep a panic attack from hurting you is to prevent one in the first place. This means learning to control your mind, keeping yourself from mentally scanning your body for signs of weaknesses.
It is catastrophic-type thinking that leads from a mild stomachache to a panic attack. You must begin to decipher your body differently. It’s like talking yourself out of a bad situation beforehand. You can actually prevent panic by the way you interpret feelings and respond to your body. If you stay positive you can cope with what you are experiencing. Telling yourself it’s not a bad thing, or that it will pass, can keep it from ever coming.
Think of yourself as a jumper on a high building. Your feelings take you up there, but it is your logical mind that must talk yourself back down, not by force, but by explaining that things aren’t as bad as they seem.
More on positive thinking and coping statements are below.
Note: A councilor or psychologist can help you tremendously, keeping you motivated and progressing from activity to activity. Having a helping hand, especially a specialist, can cure you much faster than doing it yourself. Even if you cut your ties from your councilor, having had one sets a great foundation for your self-healing.
These are different ways you can cope with a panic attack, lessen its severity, and keep it from getting the best of you.
1. Ground yourself:
Having an anxious mind means one thing if it means anything. It means that we spend A LOT of time in our own heads. Because we are constantly awaiting the next attack, we induce a panic attack instead of avoiding one. A great way to prevent or reduce the severity of panic is to come down from our heads and live in our bodies.
Grounding yourself means to come out of your head and focus on the rest of your body. To do so, imagine that you are a tall oak or sequoia. Your roots grow deep into the ground (your feet firmly planted wherever you are standing or sitting). Focus on each body part, your hands and arms, your midsection, your legs and feet. By seeing your feet, imagining them being the roots of a large tree firmly planted in earth, you turn your focus from your head to your body.
When you no longer focus on the mind, you no longer think about all the bad possible outcomes of a panic attack. You are free to relax and let your mind rest. Try this and see if it works for you. Even if it does not, at first, help with your panic attacks, you may see a marked improvement in lowering your overall nervousness, especially if you have generalized anxiety.
Note: Imagining, or visualization techniques, is one of the surest ways to combat an anxiety disorder. Whenever you are in a counseling program, you can be sure your doctor will teach you to use visualization for your benefit. It’s easy to learn to visualize and it’s very effective for reprogramming your mind to be more peaceful and at ease.
A possible quick fix for anxiety sufferers is to change the way they breathe. By doing so, and staying consistent, sufferers can immediately reap the affects of more efficiently working lungs. Anxious people have a tendency to breathe shallowly all day long, and when in the middle of panic attacks, to even hyperventilate. This shallow breathing throws the body’s system off, reducing the needed oxygen to important cells (especially those of the brain), and lowering the ability to remove waste from the body. By changing the way we breathe, we can not only reduce anxiety, but improve other very important bodily processes (we will think better and have better memories!).
Taking deep breaths is the body’s best way of physically coping with panic. Deep breathing helps replenish oxygen to the cells, neutralizes many hormones that are released during a panic attack, and prevents hyperventilation.
Learning to breathe deeply can even help lower your general nervousness. You don’t have to take large gulps of air when you breathe, but by slowly breathing in through your nose and into your stomach (breathing in until your belly expands outward visibly) and slowly releasing the air out of your mouth, you can get the benefit you need to both prevent and ease a panic attack.
One breathing technique is to breathe in through your nose for five counts (count to five), hold it in for another five, and then breathe out slowly all the air in your body for five counts. This meditative breathing practice can help remind you to breathe more efficiently more often. It is also a great, non-noticeable way to help alleviate anxiety without people asking you what you’re doing!
3. Muscle Relaxation and Exercise:
In times past, when a person was in danger and their bodies underwent fight or flight reactions, they had an outlet for the extra adrenalin. They ran it off if they ran away, and they certainly used it up when they fought. But with a panic attack, there is nothing to do with the adrenalin our bodies create, unless we give it something to do.
The next time you have a panic attack you can do either of two things, or both. The first is a technique called Muscle Relaxation in which you isolate each body part and squeeze the tension out of them. The second is to exercise.
For exercise, simply do a few sets of pushups or go for a walk. If you’re athletic, you may go for a run or do something more vigorous, whatever it takes to burn off the extra adrenalin in your system. The trick is not to overdo the exercise, which could make you feel even worse than before, but to moderate it. Do enough to get your mind off your anxiety and your body through its feeling of panic.
Muscle relaxation is performed in steps. Sit down in a comfortable chair or lay down in your bed. Start with your hands by making them into a fist and squeezing hard for a ten count. Release them and breathe in and out deeply, slowly, for a few breaths. Repeat the process. Work your hands, your forearms, your triceps, your eyes (by squeezing them shut), your mouth (by opening wide and holding it like that), your neck (by bending your head back), your chest and stomach, and your legs (your buttocks, thighs, calves, and toes).
By tensing one muscle group or one part of your body at a time, you’ll release much of the built up tension in those areas, allowing you to relax. Muscle relaxation is best done as a daily, preventative measure, taking ten or twenty minutes to go through your entire body, working all of the tense kinks out.
4. Positive Thinking and Coping Statements
Two mental aspects of panic are negativity and catastrophic thoughts. Negative self talk leads to catastrophic thoughts but the two are not quite the same. Negativity keeps us believing that we won’t ever cure ourselves of anxiety while catastrophic thoughts lead us to believe that when we do panic, we’ll die, have a heart attack, faint, or become sick. Catastrophic thoughts feed off our negativity.
Staying positive can help prevent panic, and positive thinking during the first stages of a panic attack can prevent the catastrophic thoughts that escalate panic attacks. Using coping statements to counter your catastrophic thoughts is the key.
Think of what happens when you have a panic attack. What do you think about? Do you feel like the worst thing will surely happen? Do you feel like you won’t survive? What about dying or becoming gravely ill? Do you feel like you’re going insane? None of these things are ever the case, and coping statements help you understand that. For instance, if you feel that you’re going to die and this strengthens the panic, write down a list (two or three or four items) of positive coping statements. Reason with your mind, prove on paper that you won’t die because of this, this, and that. The more you read the statements, the more you can reprogram your brain’s thought process. In time, you will no longer feel like you’re dying during a panic attack, lessening the panic’s affects on your body and mind.
Other effective coping statements can deal with generalities. “I’m going to get through this; I’ve gotten through it every other time.” “This isn’t a big deal.” “These are only temporary feelings and they will pass.”
Keep your list close to you at all times and use it as protection against any oncoming anxiety. You WILL get through your panic attacks. Remember that and use it to your advantage.
Medication can be a safe way to keep the feelings of panic under control by directly controlling the way your brain operates. Be careful, though, because some anxiety medications can work well but at a cost. Drugs like Valium and Xanax are highly addictive and should not be taken in high doses on a regular basis, but as needed, sparingly. Drugs like Zoloft and Lexapro can go a long way in hindering the severe affects of panic with limited side affects and no threat of addiction, but you should always talk extensively with your doctor to make sure you need medication in the first place, and how much.
Don’t try to fight your panic, but let it come, and it will pass. Running away tells your mind and body you can’t handle whatever you must face.
Don’t panic when you panic. If you have a panic attack, you have two directions in which your mind can go in. The first direction is to think the worst thing that can happen will happen. The second is to stay calm and collected, as much as you can, and try your best to just let the feelings come and go.
You can try meditation. Sitting down in a quiet place and focusing on your breathing is a great stress reducer and can thwart a panic attack.
Getting angry at your anxiety. You cannot be angry and anxious at the same time because the energy used to be mad at something takes away from any anxiety or panic. Try punching a pillow or screaming into a pillow. If you want to make a mess, throw eggs into a bathtub.
Experience something pleasurable, because pleasure in incompatible with anxiety. Pleasure may mean eating your favorite snack, taking a hot bath, having a back rub, playing with your children, watching a funny movie, or having sexual intercourse.
The common thread in all of these different anxiety reducing activities is that they take your mind of the anxiety at hand, forcing you to focus, not on your panic attack, but on what you’re doing. If you’re angry, you’re going to be focused on your anger, not on your anxiety. If you’re having fun, you’ll be focused on that.
If you’re in a panic causing location (if you have social anxiety disorder and in a crowded location) then try to leave that location as soon as you can to reduce the panic.
The most important thing to know is that you’re in control, and you have the power to survive. It takes practice and willingness to control your panic attacks, but it can be done. There are many different ways to help during a panic attack, and though none of them alone can do the whole job, if you find several that work and do them together, you will cure yourself of many of the ill feelings caused by severe attacks. With the help of a medical professional, a trusted friend or sincere and caring family member, you can have the benefit of a support person, someone who will always be by your side when the going gets rough. Knowing that you don’t have to face panic alone goes a long way to control its affects.