--Anonymous January 2015
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue in the U.S. When anxiety becomes unmanageable and unpredictable, panic attacks can develop. If you're suffering from panic attacks, you may feel alone in your struggle. Panic attacks are not uncommon as approximately 6 million Americans are afflicted with Panic Disorder at any given time with women being almost 3 times more likely to develop this disorder compared to men.
I tell patients three things when they first process their panic experiences:
1) No one has ever died from a panic attack, ever. Yes, you may have difficulty breathing, a rapid heartbeat, and even thoughts of dying, but no one has ever died from a panic attack.
2) Anxiety and panic disorders are highly treatable with many effective strategies.
3) You are already getting better as you've begun the process of talking about and mastering your anxiety.
At the root of a panic attack is anxiety. Instead of a consistent and expected level of anxiety, panic attacks are marked by extreme and quick waves of anxiety that manifest as fear or discomfort. Other symptoms include (from the DSM-V):
palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
trembling or shaking
sensations of shortness of breath or something
feeling of choking
chest pain or discomfort
nausea or abdominal distress/pain
dizziness, lightheaded, or faint
fear of losing control
fear of dying
paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
chills or hot flashes
Panic attacks are like an emotional tsunami. A wave of discomfort or force that you want to stop but you can't. The more intense it feels, the more severe the panic. This emotional wave happens quickly, usually within 5 or 10 minutes. Sometimes it ends just as quickly or the panic feeling can last for a few hours. The good news is you can intervene with some fairly straightforward strategies to decrease the duration and frequency of panic attacks.
Strategies To Decrease And Extinguish Panic Attacks
1) Study your anxiety. Why are the attacks happening now? What's changed in your life? Are the attacks worse during certain days or times? Which of the previously mentioned symptoms are present before, during, and after your attack(s)?
When suffering from a panic attack, the instinctual response is to end the anxiety, to run from the anxiety. Unfortunately, trying to avoid the anxiety usually makes the anxiety worse. You start to become anxious about being anxious. Get to know your anxiety. Study it.
2) Pay attention to your body. Your body is always talking to you, always. Whether you are hurt, hungry, tired, happy, or anxious, your body is sending you signals. The question is are you paying attention?
Check in with your body throughout the day, anxious or not. Where is your stress level at the time? Your anxiety level? You will quickly learn that your body responds in certain ways to stress and emotions. This will help you become more aware of when you are feeling anxious or when a panic attack may be emerging.
3) Reflect on how you manage stress. What's helpful? What isn't? What's happening right before the panic attack? Reflecting on the efficacy of your coping skills accomplishes a couple of things: 1) increases your awareness of what is stressful in your life, and 2) increases your understanding of how stress affects you physically and emotionally. The greater your awareness, the greater your belief and confidence that you can manage stress and anxiety.
4) Be proactive. Usually the first panic attack is dismissed. Often it is followed by a second attack at some point and hope that it doesn't happen again. After the third one, the panic and fear of more attacks sets in with frequent thoughts of when, where, and what time the next attack may reoccur.
When someone seeks services for a panic attack, it's usually to make the attacks stop, but also how to stop them when they start. The key is to manage your anxiety before signs of a panic attack. Even the best psychologist can't say or do something in the middle of a panic attack that will make it stop immediately. If you intervene before the anxiety becomes overwhelming, you'll have a better chance of managing your anxiety.
Think of stress management techniques not only for moments of tension and crisis, but also for when you're feeling relaxed or happy. It's a great way to train your mind and body to easily return to a relaxed state. Utilizing stress management techniques on a regular basis keeps your anxiety at a minimal level. Usually a person's anxiety is already elevated before a panic attack. Even though it feels like it, panic attacks don't appear from nowhere. There are signs that are going unnoticed.
5) Mindfulness. I've really incorporated mindfulness into my life and therapy practice in the last couple of years. Mindfulness is simply being in the present. It's been shown to be very effective in treating anxiety, especially anxiety marked by worrisome and fearful thoughts.
People suffering from panic attacks usually report extreme thoughts during and after the attack (thoughts of helplessness, death, hopelessness, etc.). Mindfulness helps with accepting your experience but stopping your mind from going to extremes.
Mindfulness techniques can be performed in any setting and for any amount of time. Whether in a therapy office, at your home, in a plane, or in the checkout line at the grocery store. The exercise can be 45 minutes or 45 seconds. Mindfulness is an incredibly powerful tool that can be change your mindset in an instant.
6) Laugh. Are you laughing enough? I'm being serious. Laughter has a positive impact on your mood and can instantly relieve stress and anxiety. I'm not saying tell jokes in an attempt to avoid a panic attack, but make sure you laugh on a regular basis. In essence, stay connected with friends and loved ones, even if your anxiety says to withdraw and isolate.
If you follow these steps, you will have success. This doesn't mean the panic attacks will go away immediately. You may have success and then have a panic attack days or weeks later. That's not failure, it's a moment to reflect on what was going right and wrong. Don't give up. Stay consistent. You'll see progress.
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Salmaan Toor is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. If you are interested in being notified of future posts, you can “like” The Family Center of Knoxville on facebook here or can follow me on Twitter here. Thanks for your support!