I realized recently that I can’t remember the last time I had a panic attack. I used to think I’d never be able to go a single day without having one, and now it has been years since I’ve had a full-blown attack. Isn’t that amazing? Hopefully that provides some hope to those of you who are suffering.
Here are some tips that I learned for bringing a panic attack down when it arises. This stuff took months and months for me to learn and to really sink in, so be patient with yourself.
1) Recognize that it’s a panic attack.
This sounds easy, but it’s actually one of the most difficult things to do in the midst of an attack. Panic is a master at tricking us into believing something is wrong. The very nature of the fight/flight system is to alert us that there is danger and we must do something, anything to save ourselves.
The quickening of our heart and the pain in our chest might make us think we’re having a heart attack. The frightening sense of unreality overtaking us must mean that we are going crazy.
Panic will attach to whatever you’re most afraid of and amplify it until it becomes very real.
The first several times I experienced a panic attack, I ended up in the emergency room, like many other panic sufferers do. I was entirely convinced that something besides anxiety was causing these sensations.
The first step in bringing yourself back to equilibrium is to acknowledge that it is only a panic attack. Accept that you are not actually in danger.
Repeat in your mind that you are not having a heart attack, you’re not going crazy, and you’re not dying.
If this is difficult for you to accept, I recommend investing in a full medical work-up to rule out any physical cause of the sensations. If the doctor confirms it is caused by anxiety, believe him/her. Yes, there is always a chance that you could actually be having a heart attack this time, but you must be willing to accept that risk if you’re going to overcome panic.
2) Drop the story.
Once you’ve accepted that you’re experiencing a panic attack, drop the storyline that is fueling the fear.
The stories we create can be different for each attack. The what if thoughts are exactly what trap us in the cycle of fear and make it impossible to get out.
What if this never ends? What if I lose control of my body and start swerving into oncoming traffic? What if I’m losing my mind and can’t find my way back? What if I collapse in front of all these people?
Whatever story you’ve concocted, let it go. Come back to the sensations that are occurring in your body moment to moment. If that is too intense, come back to the breath. I am breathing in. I am breathing out.
During my attacks, as soon as I dropped the fearful thoughts and focused on the present moment, the attack would begin to subside almost immediately. If we’re not feeding the fear, it cannot live.
3) Find a distraction.
Due to all of the adrenaline, your body and mind are racing at lighting speeds during a panic attack. Your mind and body NEED something to do in order to let out that excess energy.
What can you put all of your attention on that is positive and helpful?
I remember coming up with grocery lists in my head, or mentally planning out sequences for my yoga classes, or coming up with article ideas- anything productive to take my mind off of the scary thoughts.
Also, some people recommend doing something physical, like running or dancing, when you’re panicking to release the energy. This never was an option for me. While we often just say fight or flight, there is another way that some of us deal with a threat and that is to freeze. I’m a freezer, for sure. I became almost immobile and very quiet when I would have panic attacks. So if you’re a fighter or a flighter, running or dancing or doing yoga might work for you to let go of steam.
4) Send yourself so much love.
My self-talk became so preciously kind when I was panicking, because it really does help.
I would say to myself, “You are so strong, sweet girl, and you WILL get through this. This always passes and I love you so much. You know that this is just fear and I will love you through this.”
And then I would place my hands on belly and imagine all the love in the world flowing through them.
You’re already going through a really shitty time by panicking, please don’t add judgments or shame or criticism. Send yourself as much love as possible, because you deserve it. You deserve your own love.
What helps you guys when you have a panic attack?