“Come on, you can do this. It’s only a meeting, just hold it together. Oh God, I can feel the wave coming. Not now, please, not now. My heart’s beating too fast, it’s going to explode. This isn’t right. Why can’t I catch my breath? I’m suffocating. My muscles feel heavy and my tongue is frozen. I can’t think straight, am I going to faint? I have to get out of here. I can’t stay.”
This is an example of an internal dialogue that I had with myself during one of my first panic attacks.
Having suffered with anxiety for over a decade and choosing to ignore it — not a great plan, trust me — I’d finally pushed my brain too far. I hoped that it was just a one-time thing, but after the third attack, I knew I was in trouble.
To someone who’s never experienced one, the best way I can think to describe a panic attack is: It’s like having liquid terror injected into your brain. An overwhelming feeling that something is very wrong and you’re helpless to stop it. The brain desperately looks for a cause, but there’s none to be found. It’s truly one of the most distressing experiences I’ve had.
The common physical symptoms of a panic attack can include:
- rapid heartbeat
- feeling as though you can’t breathe
- dry mouth
- stomach cramps
- stiff muscles
During an attack, it’s common to fear one of two things: “I’m going to die” or “I’m going crazy.” Many people believe it’s a heart attack or stroke. That’s the crafty thing about panic attacks, they mimic serious symptoms of other illnesses.
What triggers one? Well that depends — again, so irritating. There’s no one definitive cause.
My biggest trigger is any environment that reminds me of school. The desks, group setting, and fear that at any moment I could be asked a question I don’t know. This is why meetings or dinner parties can be triggering. For other people, it’s public transportation, supermarkets, or driving during heavy traffic.
However, all is not lost! You don’t have to be a slave to panic all of your life. There are techniques that can be very beneficial to you.
1. See a doctor
It sounds obvious, but I highly recommend anyone experiencing panic attacks to go and see a doctor. In the initial stages, while you’re learning more about the condition, a doctor might prescribe some short-term medications, such as diazepam, to take the edge off.
Plus, it’s always good to have a doctor confirm that you don’t have a heart condition and that it’s indeed anxiety or panic attacks. On my first visit, I burst into the office and declared that I was dying! My doctor confirmed otherwise.
2. Practice deep belly breathing
Did you know that many of the symptoms of a panic attack, such as feeling dizzy and a pounding heart, are actually intensified because you’re not breathing properly? When we panic, we breathe in our chests, which is known as shallow breathing.
Instead, try using your stomach muscles when you breathe. This will increase the amount of oxygen in the body and help to slow things down. Check out my video on breathing techniques for more details.
3. Accept that it’s happening
This is a hard one, but acceptance is very effective when it comes to dealing with a panic attack. We instinctively fight panic attacks because they’re awful and we don’t want to experience them. It’s like asking a man if he’d like a kick in the balls? No thanks! However, this resistance lengthens the lifespan of the attack by further sending distress signals to the brain.
So, how do you accept an attack? Say to yourself, either out loud or internally: “This is just a panic attack. It can’t hurt me or make me go insane. It can’t make me do anything stupid. The worst that will happen is that I’ll feel very uncomfortable for a while and then it’ll go away. I can deal with this. I’m safe.”
Let it wash over you like a wave, and then slowly begin to belly breathe. Tensing and then relaxing your muscles is good too, as this will feel comforting.
4. Expose yourself to your triggers
This isn’t an easy technique to master, but once you get the hang of the basics, it’s a game changer. After an attack, it’s our instinct to avoid the situation that triggered it. For example, in the wild, if you got attacked by a crocodile near a lake, then you’d be wary of that lake. And for good reason!
However, in the normal day-to-day world, avoiding the triggers of an attack is a big mistake. Why? Because avoiding them will confirm to your brain that the situation was dangerous, and each time you’re in a similar situation, a panic attack will be triggered. Your world will get smaller and smaller until the panic rules your life.
The best way to combat this is to deliberately expose yourself to situations that make you feel anxious, thereby triggering an attack. Yes, I know this sounds horrendous, but hear me out. If you stay put and accept the attack, it will communicate to your brain that there’s nothing to be afraid of. This information will be stored and you’re less likely to have an attack the next time you’re in that type of situation.
The key is to start off small and work your way up. If you’re afraid of driving then don’t plan a road trip for your first task! Make a list of things to do each day. For example:
- Get in the car, but leave the door open.
- Get in the car and shut the door.
- Get in the car, put your seatbelt on, and turn on the ignition.
- Get in the car and drive slowly to the end of your street.
Slow and steady is the way to go with exposure. Teach your brain that you can deal with an attack when it happens.
Panic attacks run on excess adrenaline, so a good way to regulate your adrenaline levels is with cardio exercise. Running, team sports, or even a nice brisk walk are all good. Be sure to check with your doctor first before starting a new exercise regimen.
In 2013, I was having panic attacks every day. As I sit and write this now, I haven’t had one in eight months. Yet, if one does strike, I’m safe in the knowledge that I can handle it.