First, of all, What is a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks, also called anxiety attacks, are an acute state of anxiety that can happen in moments of intense stress or worry. While the experience is different for different people, some common experiences include:
•Shakiness or weakness
•Tightness in the chest
•Inability to think or speak clearly
Most people who have panic attacks find them to be visceral, physical experiences where their whole body seems to be caught up in the event. Because they are so physical and may involve racing heart, labored breathing, and chest pain, many people believe they are having a heart attack when they have their first panic attack. They can be frightening, especially if you’ve never had one before, but a panic attack doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. They’re actually quite common, and with a little practice you can be prepared to manage them. While having a single panic attack doesn’t mean you’ll inevitably have more, even people who have regular panic attacks can learn to manage them so that they’re a nuisance rather than a disaster. Below are some of my favorite techniques for managing panic attacks.
10 Techniques for Managing a Panic Attack:
•Put your hand on your stomach and breathe so that your hand rises and falls.
•Inhale for a slow count of three, then exhale for a slow count of three. Repeat.
•Drink cold water. Pay attention to the feeling of it in your mouth and throat.
•Grab an ice cube or bag of frozen veggies. Hold it in your hands or put it against your cheek.
•Repeat a mantra: “This is just a panic attack. It will go away soon.”
•Splash cold water on your face.
•Go outside for fresh air and breathing room.
•Find something solid - the arm of a chair, a railing, a tree - and grab hold. Notice everything you can about the sensation.
•Go around the room and name the colors of all the objects in it to yourself.
After the Storm
Sometimes you might know exactly what triggered a panic attack. Other times you might feel like it came out of nowhere. It can be helpful after you’ve gotten calm again to think a bit about what happened and see if you can put together a pattern. Some questions you might ask yourself:
•How was I feeling before the panic attack?
•What was I thinking about before it happened?
•Was I doing anything different than my normal routine today?
•Have there been any different or unusually stressful things going on in my life recently?
•Did I have more caffeine than usual today?
•Am I taking any medications that might have played a role (such as stimulants)?
If you have repeated panic attacks, it can be especially helpful to start tracking the signs that let you know your anxiety levels are getting high, even before that anxiety becomes a full blown panic attack. One way to do this is by checking in with yourself on a regular basis (say, at lunchtime every day, or before bed) and doing a few things:
•Notice any muscle tension in your body. Are your shoulders raised and tense? Is your face feeling tight? Does your chest feel constricted? Are your legs jittery or bouncing?
•Notice any other bodily sensations. Do you feel hot or flushed? Clammy?
•Notice your breathing. Is it shallow? Deep? Fast? Slow?
•Notice your thoughts. Are they racing? Going in circles? Are you dwelling on specific things that you can’t seem to let go of?
When you get familiar with your own anxiety signals, you can work to lower your anxiety level before it peaks. For example, you might find that you tend to get jittery and start fidgeting and breathing shallowly when you’re anxious. Now when you check in with yourself daily, you can notice those signals of rising anxiety and take action. Some things that can help you to feel calmer when your anxiety is rising include:
•Taking a 5 minute walk outside
•Doing a few minutes of yoga or stretching
•Drinking a glass of water or herbal tea
•Playing with a stress ball or silly putty
•Meditating briefly or using a meditation app
Many of the techniques for managing a panic attack above can also be repurposed for calming ordinary anxiety.
If you find yourself struggling with high levels of anxiety or having panic attacks, a therapist can be an invaluable resource for helping you to identify triggers and anxiety signals and practice calming techniques for managing anxiety. If you’d like to learn more about how therapy for anxiety can help, you can read more here.