“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
For those lucky enough to never have experienced a panic attack it can be a difficult thing to understand, even when witnessing someone in the midst of one. Most people in this situation struggle to comprehend what’s happening, why the person is so distressed, or how to help. Often, this lack of understanding causes them to say and do well-intentioned things that inadvertently make the attack worse for the person experiencing it.
As a result, panic attacks are one of those things in life that we need to learn to manage and control independently, as more often than not there won’t be anyone there to stop it for you, and even if there is, they’re unlikely to be able to do so effectively.
A panic attack might last for anything from a couple of minutes to an hour or more, and some of the symptoms can continue long after the main attack has ended. While it’s distressing enough experiencing them in isolation, having repeated attacks has a serious impact on your life. You’re likely to start avoiding certain situations, people, and places you feel are likely to trigger your anxiety, leading to a sense of isolation, loneliness, and lack of fulfilment in life.
Yet panic isn’t an insurmountable obstacle.
It should not curtail your life, or prevent you from following your dreams and achieving your full potential.
Learning to prevent panic attacks and manage them when they do happen is essential, but in itself can often seem like an overwhelming task that can’t possibly be accomplished. To help you get back in control, here are some simple but highly effective ways of managing your anxiety, and how to stop a panic attack in the event it’s unavoidable…
The Symptoms Of A Panic Attack…
Panic attacks are sudden and intense surges of panic and fear that swiftly overwhelm your senses, producing both physical and psychological symptoms. These can range from difficulty breathing to trembling, heart palpitations, chest pains, and excessive sweating. Other symptoms include blurred or distorted vision, the sensation that you’re about to pass out, dizziness, and digestion issues. It’s also not uncommon to experience dissociation during an attack, which leaves you detached from reality and disorientated as a result.
The experience is so intense that many people fear they’re having a heart attack or stroke when a panic attack hits, particularly if they’ve never experienced one before. This only exacerbates the fear and panic they are feeling, and heightens the sense that the world is overwhelming them.
While the symptoms of a panic attack are acute there are also several other symptoms you may experience on a chronic basis that relate to your anxiety and seem to afflict you constantly. Insomnia is a common complaint, as are difficulties concentrating, irritability, a constant feeling of tension and jumpiness, and a gnawing sense of fear, worry and dread.
You are also likely to experience the sensation of being out of control, as well as the unnerving notion that you’re ‘going crazy’ or ‘losing your mind’, all as a result of the panic.
Anxiety Vs Panic Attacks…
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there are differences between anxiety and panic attacks, the main ones being that anxiety attacks have specific triggers, while panic attacks can occur without any clear cause.
When an anxiety attack hits it’s usually because you’re having an issue at work, there’s a stressful event that needs to be managed, you have health concerns, you’re having relationship issues, or any number of other events that have a negative, high-stress, emotional impact.
Panic attacks, on the other hand, may well be triggered by a specific event or situation, but they can just as easily occur without any comprehensible cause. In addition, while the symptoms of a panic attack are extreme, an anxiety attack is usually less severe, and may only produce one or two of the symptoms associated with panic attacks.
It’s not uncommon for individuals who have regular panic attacks, or who have been diagnosed with panic disorder, to also experience anxiety attacks. Anxiety, however, can happen to anyone and does not necessarily indicate the presence of a diagnosable condition.
How To Stop An Anxiety Or Panic Attack…
The good news is that whether you’re prone to panic attacks, anxiety attacks, or both, learning these methods can help you manage an attack.
Acknowledge You’re Having An Attack…
There’s a reason they’re called panic attacks; the overriding symptom of both anxiety and panic attacks is a feeling of fear. It’s what makes them so overwhelming, but it’s also the key to managing them. One of the most insidious aspects of these attacks is the fear you’re left with, after you’ve experienced one, that it will happen again.
It’s easy to get caught in a self-perpetuating loop in which your feelings of anxiety and fear over the possibility of having an attack pushes you into another attack, reinforcing your fear of them and causing you to have more in the future.
If left unchecked this cycle can lead to a constantly escalating experience where anxiety is concerned.
The first thing to do in order to get your attacks under control is to take away the power of the fear.
Learn to recognise an attack when it starts, as early in the process as possible, and acknowledge that you’re having an anxiety or panic attack. Whatever you may be feeling physically, you’re not having a heart attack or stroke, you can in fact breathe, and your death is not imminent.
What you are feeling is awful to experience, but is not inherently life threatening, and will pass.
One way to neutralise the fear that comes with an attack is to confront it. Rather than removing yourself from the situation causing your anxiety, try to ride it out. When you see the situation through to the end you defuse it by allowing yourself to discover that the awful thing you’re terrified will happen, won’t actually happen.
If the awful thing you’re afraid of is having an attack itself, you’re also discovering that even if the worst does happen it’s not an insurmountable problem.
Stick it out until the worst of the anxiety has passed, and then try to continue with what you were doing before the attack started.
One thing that people can do to help you through an attack is to remind you that it will pass. That the terrifying symptoms you’re experiencing are extremely unpleasant, but aren’t actually going to kill you, or even hurt you in any physical sense.
Focus On Your Breathing…
If trying to convince yourself not to be afraid when you’re in the grip of overwhelming fear seems impossible, one thing that can help is focusing on your breathing. One of the most distressing symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks is the sense that you can’t catch your breath. Doing a little deep breathing is a very practical way of immediately alleviating this symptom.
It also requires concentrating on something very simple and practical, that is surprisingly difficult to achieve when you’re lost in the panic. That level of concentration distracts you from the panic, allowing you to catch your breath and get a little distance from the anxiety. By focusing on nothing but your breath you will also relax your body.
Controlling your breathing also makes it less likely you’ll hyperventilate, which will only exacerbate all your other symptoms, so close your eyes, and take a breath.
Breathe in slowly through your nose for a full four seconds (or the count of four). Hold that breath for four, then slowly exhale for four. Repeat this for as long as needed, but you will usually find that after three or four repetitions of successfully holding the count, the tide of panic is starting to ebb.
While this is a very effective way of calming yourself, don’t be surprised if you feel drowsy afterwards.
Shut Your Eyes…
Closing your eyes while doing your breathing exercise is a great way of helping you focus. This is also a very good general coping mechanism to use during an attack. Anxiety attacks are always triggered by something – a place, a sound, or smell. Triggers frequently include a visual element, and even if you’re having a panic attack that hasn’t been triggered by something, or the trigger of your anxiety attack isn’t visual, closing your eyes is one way to instantly reduce your overwhelm.
You’re cutting out a huge chunk of data your brain is forced to process by removing all the visual cues in your surroundings. Without the need to process what you’re seeing (some of which may be causing your anxiety), you give your brain a bit of breathing space.
The energy saved not dealing with the visual can be put to use processing other stimuli causing your panic, making you better able to deal with it.
Take this a step further by blocking out sounds too, either by using a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, or popping in your earbuds and listening to your favourite music.
Focus And Ground Yourself…
On the opposite end of the scale, many people find it useful to focus on a single thing they can see during a panic attack. Choose an object that’s clearly in sight and consciously pay attention to every single detail about it. Note its size, shape, colour, any distinctive features, and exactly how it moves or fits into the room.
By focusing all your attention and energy on this one object you give yourself something simple to occupy your thoughts, short-circuiting the overwhelm and giving your panic chance to subside.
An extension of this is grounding yourself in your surroundings by ‘tuning in’ to four things you can see, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. If your mind is really racing, focusing on only one object may not be enough, but this grounding technique should give you enough to occupy your mind while still diffusing your sense of overwhelm.
Force Yourself To Think…
Occupying your mind is crucial when it comes to managing the symptoms of anxiety and panic. There are a few tricks you can use to do this, which can be done as you’re going about your day-to-day life. Think of them as mental kegels – nobody needs to know you’re doing them!
Here are two good tricks to try:
Count backwards from 100 in increments of three (100, 97, 94, 91, etc.).
Run through the alphabet and think of one thing from a particular category starting with every letter. For example, animals (aardvark, bear, cat, dog, elephant, etc.) or car manufacturers (Audi, BMW, Citeron, Dodge, Equus etc.). You can do this with pretty much anything, and it’s actually harder than you think!
One great thing you can do on a daily basis to prevent anxiety and panic attacks is to exercise. Getting a regular hit of endorphins will keep your blood pumping in just the right way, while elevating your mood.
In addition to helping prevent attacks, exercising during an attack can be helpful, provided the attack isn’t giving you breathing difficulties. If you’re hyperventilating, run through our breathing exercises and catch your breath first. Then, try some gentle exercise like walking, swimming, or yoga. Regular aerobic exercise is particularly beneficial, so consider enrolling in some weekly classes – the routine of going at the same time on set days will also help stave off attacks.
Keep Your Cool…
Another great trick to use is one you won’t be able to do on-the-go or while you’re out and about, but if you’re at home it works like a charm. Keep four ice packs in the freezer, two small ones and two large ones. When you feel the panic setting in, take them out. Place the large ones in the small of your back, and hold the smaller packs, one in each hand.
You can also place one on your chest or stomach if you’re experiencing heart palpitations and difficulty breathing.
This will alleviate overheating, as well as help to slow and steady your breathing and heart rate. It’s particularly effective if you’re experiencing that awful ‘heart in mouth’ sensation.
It can be very difficult to believe you’re not in immediate danger and it will all soon be over when you’re in the grips of an attack. If you can’t fully buy into the thought then the simple act of repeating the notion to yourself can be incredibly helpful.
Repeating some internal mantras can both relax and reassure you. The go-to here should always be ‘this too shall pass’, however you can use anything you want. Look for phrases and expressions that you find comforting, or that express a sentiment you find calming. Repeat your chosen phrase (either verbally or in your mind) until you feel yourself calm down.
Take Advantage Of Technology…
The modern digital age hasn’t exactly done a lot to ease our anxieties and panic. Digital media is everywhere, and many people find it contributes to their feelings of anxiety and overwhelm. But technology is also very much our friend. Take advantage of the way tech has evolved to help us manage our mental health, by investing in some quality apps that give you practical ways of managing your panic.
The Zen Buddy app is packed with tricks and tips to help you do exactly this. Signup below to be first in line for a free trial when the app is launched…