I’ll be honest until I had one I had NO CLUE what a panic attack was. Let alone how to overcome a panic attack.
The first time I got on a plane I felt nervous, my palms were sweaty, my arms and hands were shaking, I could breathe but it felt like my chest was too tight.
My travel companion at the time told me I had to sit in the window seat to see the takeoff and really experience the “joy” of flying which put me in a confined space and made it all worse (we were on a small plane).
I was officially crammed into one of the smallest spaces I had been in for years and experiencing what I now know as my first full-fledged panic attack.
Thank GOD for the flight attendant who noticed what was happening. As we taxied down the runway he talked to me, made sure I was ok and tried to distract me from what was going on in my body.
My travel companion, on the other hand, laughed a decidedly unhelpful, embarrassing and maddening response.
I wish I had been prepared to handle the situation beforehand, but I was totally (and blissfully) unaware that I had developed any anxiety issues let alone that I was capable of having a Panic Attack.
Panic Attacks can strike anywhere, any time and don’t always have a clear trigger that can be avoided. For me stepping onto the plane felt confining, and I was powerless to have any control over how the trip would go.
I realize now that part of the whole concern was that Panic Attacks trigger a fight or flight response in me and as I didn’t understand what was happening my fear levels just increased which made the whole cycle start all over.
The Symptoms of a Panic Attack
The classic symptoms are usually fairly obvious to the people around you, but mostly they are very unsettling if not terrifying for the person experiencing one.
But it may not always be apparent when someone has a panic attack. I know since the first one that happened rather dramatically I’ve learned how to cover up or hide mine when in public, at least long enough to get out of the situation and hide until it is over.
While a panic attack cannot hurt you on its own, it can be something that happens with a social stigma or even results in bullying from people who claim to care about you (like in my example above). As they are often associated with mental illnesses linked to anxiety and depression it can feel like you have to cover them up.
And the confusing part (for me at least) is that I know internally that I’m ok/safe, yet my body becomes so full of adrenaline and worry that it doesn’t matter. This loss of control on its own is often paralyzing and scary.
A Racing Heart
One of the first symptoms many people pick up on is that their heart is racing, I’m talking 0 to 60 in a second flat. The pounding and pulsing can easily put you off touching base with your body as the sensation is hard to handle on its own. The first time I noticed it I thought I was having a heart attack.
Unfortunately, this side effect has to do with the amount of adrenaline that has just been dumped in your body. And while that will dissipate as time wears on, it can take 30 minutes or so to fully dissolve and stop affecting you.
I personally hate this one, I used to keep getting caught trying to fight the panic monster. This typically resulted in a mentally and emotionally exhausted battle that I never felt I could win anyway. I just didn’t have the willpower to continually fight, fatigued and ready to give up.
It wasn’t until I started getting encouragement and reassurance from a close friend that I was able to even think about handling one without feeling weak about it.
Tingling or Numbness in the hands
While I don’t personally get this one, I can only imagine how unsettling it would feel to suddenly have tingling in your hands/fingers for no apparent reason. For some, this even comes across as numbness instead of tingles. This could be caused by hyperventilation, the rapid, often shallow breaths that are to a certain extent also increasing your stress levels.
A Sense of Terror
It doesn’t matter if the terror is real or imaginary, feeling like you are in danger is scary. And it can even make the panic attack harder to get out of as it morphs into a fear/terror of what the panic attack is doing to you.
The Chest Pains
Chest pain can be common for some who experience panic attacks. If someone is clutching at their chest while dealing with one it is likely are they are experiencing chest pains.
These are different from heart attacks, however. With chest pains, they typically come up at a period of inactivity.
The pain is limited to the chest, wherein a heart attack it will radiate around the body. Usually, Chest Pains sufferers will experience the most intense in the initial stages of the panic attack, after which it will start to diminish.
Have you ever really stopped to think about how you breathe? Unless you do breath work in something like yoga or meditations paying attention to your breath is not likely to be a main focal point in your day, especially since it happens automatically. Kinda like a default function in your body.
However for those caught in a panic attack their breathing often gets shallow and rapid thanks to the hyperventilating mentioned earlier.
While you know you need oxygen in order to calm down it can be a challenge to calm down enough to get deeper breaths into their lungs. If you see someone struggling with this give them a focal point and breathe with them to help.
Feeling the loss of control
Many people I’ve talked to state that having a panic attack feels like they’ve lost control of their own body. Logically you can know that it is your body responding in a hyperactive type way that is meant to protect you from danger (real or otherwise).
Exactly how a person will respond depends on their fight, flight or freeze response. This response is something our animalistic brain is running, which in times of real danger can save our lives.
The problem with panic attacks is that this trigger gets activated unnecessarily, and can cause a person to respond in ways they wouldn’t if they were in full control of their body. At the same time, you still have your conscious mind trying to control and manage your body, usually with conflicting instructions. The resulting confusion makes it harder and harder to keep calm the farther you get into a panic attack.
So How do I Reduce the impact of a Panic Attack?
What I know now is that I can control my experience to a certain extent. I have learned to use some common tools to help me reduce the impact these attacks can have on how I function.
I’ve heard the “Count five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste” more times then I can actually remember. And frankly, this doesn’t work for me, though I know people who it does wonders for so give it a try and see.
But for me, if I’m panicking I’m already over stimulated, and my senses are freaking out. I need things that help me focus and eliminate all the buzz that goes on around me in life.
If you have read How finding my Happy Place calmed my Panic Attacks then you already know that sometimes at the most unexpected moments we can find peace, even in the midst of some intense stress. So how do I reduce the impact of my Panic Attacks?
Visit your happy place, if only in your mind
I’m not big on touch, but in my husbands, arms is my happy place.
And more recently hugs from my husband and/or son seem to do the trick.
For me, this is the best stress relief available, and the most calming situation. And if I can’t actually get to one of them, then I “pretend” they are there and how I feel when they do.
But it’s not just anyone that I can handle accepting a hug from, it litterally can only be my husband or son that hugs me. Otherwise my attack can spiral further out of control.
This is the first thing I start with, for me part of the issue is that I start to breathe very shallowly which makes the feeling of having your chest restricted worse! Focusing on your breath for a couple minutes helps to keep the air moving and reduces the sensation of constriction. Bonus it may also reduce the feelings of light headed or dizziness, and the tingling and numbing we talked about earlier.
This doesn’t work for everyone, or this may not be something you can’t handle with just anyone. But if you are like me physical contact with certain people can help reduce your stress levels and put you in a calmer space. Allowing you to handle the situation as it happens instead of just reacting to the terror.
For me, I can hug my husband or son but can’t handle anyone else touching me. If I’m not in a situation to hug him, we hold hands.
Guided Imagery Exercises
Do you have a “happy place”? I do. And in my post How finding my Happy Place calmed my Panic Attacks I go into how exactly I found that place right in the middle of an unexpected situation. But the short version is that my happy place is in the arms of my husband. He is very calming for me, if I can’t get to him physically, I imagine he is holding me. You could also listen to a recording of someone describing a space you would find relaxing to help you shift away from the panic. I like guided imagery and sometimes will listen to a recording that talks me through something. Not always space but could be a guided meditation or even just a random podcast I have on my phone that elicits pictures in my head that I can focus on.
Whatever your faith, prayer is powerful. Bring it into your panic and it can do wonders, reach out to God and ask for help handling the situation. Sometimes consciously turning over the control to a higher power helps us to let go of the need to control the moment. And letting go of that control in a calm way usually will help the attack dissipate.
Like Breathing Exercises this helps you get out of your head and into your body. I will stretch or do yoga in sometimes random places because it will help me handle what is happening. Even if you physically can’t do the work (due to location or other restrictions) try visualizing yourself doing it.
Go for a walk or do some yoga, dance to a song or some other physical movement that will help you refocus your mind. If possible pick something that you normally enjoy doing, it will remind your body that you are safe and feeling good is ok again.
Listen to Music
I do this often for many different reasons, but it became a bigger habit for me when the panic attacks were the worst. Often I didn’t have time to ride it out or space to practice Yoga or even go for a walk, but a good song played at the right volume has been able to override the fear for me. If you have a favorite song for this keep it on your phone so you can play it whenever. I know I do!
Remove yourself from the situation
If you know what set off the panic you can also remove yourself from it (if it is safe to do so). When I first started having attacks I had no clue what was triggering it. However, now I can occasionally identify why it started and remove myself from the situation which reduces the stressor and leads to calming down quicker.
These are just some of the ways I’ve handled Panic Attacks in the past. The big thing is to get out of your head and into your body (at least for me), if I stay stuck in my brain then the panic keeps running me in circles until it runs its course, but if I use the ideas above I can re-connect with my body and that tends to calm me enough to break the cycle. Remember even if none of the above helps it will run its course and you can make it through this!
Preventing Panic Attacks, can you find the trigger?
Depending on who you talk to panic attacks either have a trigger or never have a trigger. I’ve heard both sides of that argument from professionals and sufferers alike.
While I don’t have a solid answer from everyone, I do know that there are some things that I do to reduce the risk of having a Panic Attack.
For instance, small spaces have been known to cause me problems in the past so I avoid them now.
The other thing I’ve done is attend some Martial Arts adrenaline response training. At the time I did this course I didn’t know it would help me with my panic attacks, it wasn’t even touted as something that could help panic attack suffers. But it is one of the side effects that I’ve noticed since.
The basic principle of the class is that you are put into a safe martial arts training environment, then the instructor actually does things to cause your adrenalin response to kick in.
For me he covered my head with a pillowcase and spun me around, for others it was a blindfold and loud noises etc.
Then the instructor “attacks” you and you have to defend yourself. Now I’m aware that this type of training is not for everyone, and it can be intimidating even for some who are more experienced in Martial Arts.
But if you are not up for the Martial Arts version there are other ways that you could go about building up some experience with adrenalin (the main hormone we work within a panic attack).
For instance, you could take a friend and face something that normally would cause you an attack while they hold your hand and remind you that you can handle this. Or You could even start by just visualizing facing something that seems to trigger them. Just make sure you are in a safe environment and have support nearby that you trust.
I also would recommend seeking counseling, often times things like panic and anxiety are a symptom of something happening in our lives. For me, it started as a side effect of being Overwhelmed and Mentally Exhausted.
Once I got my Exhaustion uncontrol my sense of being constantly overwhelmed reduced and the panic attacks started happening less and less often.
While it won’t always eliminate the panic attacks entirely learning how to care for yourself can also reduce the frequency and duration. In my post, Self-Care, What is it? What does it Involve? And how to build your best Self-Care Routine I have started to explore what it means to take care of yourself.
No matter what you are dealing with, I hope you know you are not alone. There are so many of us out there with different ways of handling panic attacks. Often times with success in reducing their impact on our day.
It may take some trial and error to find what works for you, please be patient with yourself as you go through this journey. Chances are that you have been fighting a battle for so long that your body is in high alert constantly and this is the only way it knows to get your attention. So stop, take a breath, remove yourself from the danger (if you can) and take the time to care for you. Take the time to hear what your body is telling you because you are worth it.
I’d love to hear how you have handled your panic attacks, please feel free to drop me an email at Mrs.B at OneWeirdMamma.com.