Updated: Aug 31
The dreaded experience. Yes, they’re incredibly uncomfortable. Today’s post is all about how to deal with them if they happen to you.
A little background:
Panic attacks are our body’s fight/flight/freeze response that was originally meant for when our lives had more imminent dangers (of being eaten by tigers variety). This response is meant to help us deal with a truly life-threatening situation.
During a panic attack, a component of the brain called the amygdala sends a signal to our adrenal glands to release the hormones norepinephrine and cortisol. These hormones are helpful for fine-tuning our reflexes, speed and perception. When they’re released, our blood starts pumping harder to help us run and deal with the threat. It’s our body’s way of surviving.
In modern society, our response to stress has become far too sensitive, leading the fight/flight/freeze response to go off for all kinds of situations that don’t warrant it. For example, we don’t need to fight, flee or freeze during a traffic jam, a deadline at work or a party at a friend’s place.
Panic attacks often start to happen when we have a whole bunch of stress going on in our lives all at once. It’s like your body is saying, “this is too much and I can’t handle it.” (But I want you to know, you CAN handle it. To learn how…read on.)
Panic attacks can also occur if you’re doing something that you have a specific fear about, such as fear of heights or public speaking.
If you’ve started having panic attacks, I want you to know first and foremost, you are not alone! 3 to 5% of people have panic attacks in any given year.
What to do:
First of all, If you’re having regular panic attacks, I do suggest that you go to your family physician and make sure that you don’t have anything medically going on that might be causing this to occur. The tips I’m suggesting below are all based on the notion that you’ve checked yourself out physically. It’s most likely that you’re healthy, but you always want to confirm that.
The most important step in dealing with panic attacks is doing exactly what you don’t want to do- go TOWARD the anxiety. Our natural tendency is to avoid or try to get away from whatever is uncomfortable, but with anxiety, you need to train yourself to stay in the situation that triggered the anxiety and sit with the feelings.
Your goal is to not care about having a panic attack. The less you worry about having a panic attack, the more likely it is that they’ll stop.
In treating anxiety of any kind, avoidance is not your friend. You need to face the feelings as much as possible and the best way to do this is to bring on the anxious feelings on purpose.
You do this by doing whatever behaviour you think might bring on the panic attack. For example, if you worry about having a panic attack when you work out, you can run on stairs for 1 minute to induce feelings of panic. If you’re very sensitive about the shortness of breath, breathe through a straw for one minute at a time. Other options for bringing on sensations of panic are spinning in a chair for 15 seconds, shaking your head for 15 seconds or holding your breath for a minute.
Choose one exercise to bring on your panic and do it 3 to 5 times a day for 10 minutes at a time. Rate your anxiety on a 0-10 scale (10 being most extreme anxiety) and keep track of how you feel in a notebook. You’ll see that your anxiety will steadily go down as you do these exercises. This is called, “exposure” and it’s a highly effective treatment for panic.
Be aware of any thoughts you might have that might be contributing to your anxiety. For example, you might be thinking, “I can’t do this” or “I’m going to pass out.” (Fast fact, fainting from anxiety is extremely uncommon.) As you do the exposure exercises, use positive statements like “anxiety is not dangerous” or “I can do this” or “I’ve practiced this lots and nothing bad has ever happened to me.”
The key is to teach your body and mind that anxiety is normal and not harmful, just uncomfortable.
In addition to these exercises at home, you want to start changing your behaviour when you’re out in public. What does this look like? It means not leaving the situation you’re in when you feel anxious, not avoiding the anxious feelings by distracting yourself with other thoughts and not engaging in your “safety behaviours”
What is “safety behaviour?” They are the behaviour that we engage in to try to make it less likely that we’ll have a panic attack. They’re often really subtle and you might not even consciously realize that you’re doing them. Examples of safety behaviour are always carrying a sedating medication (like Ativan or another benzodiazepine) “just in case,” watching for exits and trying to be near an exit at all times or only going out with a trusted loved one.
These behaviours tend to work against a person healing from panic attacks because they’re subtle ways of avoiding the full feeling of the anxiety.
In addition to doing the exposure exercises at home and facing your anxious feelings in your daily life, you want to practice teaching your body to get into a relaxed state on a more regular basis. This will help prevent the panic attacks from happening in the first place, because the tenser, stressed and overwhelmed you are, the more likely you are to have a panic attack.
The two best ways to train your body to relax are to exercise and meditate.
Any kind of physical activity increases the relaxation response in the body and makes it much less likely that the amygdala will begin the fight/flight/freeze response. Two great options for exercise are running and yoga because they tend to be especially soothing to the body and mind. If those two don’t work for you, just get whatever exercise you can.
Regular meditation practice is another great way to reduce the longer-term likelihood of experiencing panic attacks. Meditation trains your body to become accustomed to a more relaxed “default” position. So if you tend to hover at a 6/10 stress level, regularly meditating will help you to get down to a 4 or 5 or even lower, over time. If you’re interested in starting to meditate, check out our free meditation download here.
If this all sounds way too overwhelming, I recommend seeking out some professional help to assist you in the process of healing from panic attacks. Treatment for panic attacks is one of the fastest treatments out there. If you’re in Alberta, we’re happy to help you at Ward & Associates. Just click here to contact our clinic.
I hope this information is helpful to you. Comment below with your biggest insight from this article. We’d love to hear from you!