Feb 13

Riding the wave: how to survive a panic attack

Huntington Beach US Surfing Open

Picture yourself riding a wave when you’re accepting your panic attack.

For many of you, the most troubling aspect of your anxiety is the thought that it might strike when you can’t take the time to deal with it. Maybe you’re sitting in a meeting. Maybe you’re in the middle of a final exam. Maybe you’re at a party with some friends that don’t know you very well. Whatever the situation, it puts you on edge to think that a panic attack could overwhelm you at any moment. 

In today’s post, I want to go over some simple ways that you can reduce the acute fear that surrounds panic attacks, and how you can deal with panic attacks when they happen.

Before the panic attack:

  • Accept that a panic attack could strike. Let go of the notion that having a panic attack in public would be the end of the world. Come to terms with the fact that you could panic in an inconvenient situation. What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe you have a panic attack during a meeting, and you have to step out to the bathroom for a little while. Maybe you have to head home to take a sick day.
  • Remember that a panic attack can’t kill you. You are in no danger of dying, having a heart attack, suffocating, or being harmed in any other way. Panic attacks are certainly real, but the physical sensations they cause are not. Another good thing to remember is that the typical panic attack will reach its peak in about 10 minutes, so if it does happen, it won’t last as long as you think.
  • Ignore other people’s perceptions. For many of you, your real fear is that people will judge you. From my experience, most people are quite understanding when it comes to panic attacks. Reaching out and telling someone you are at risk of having a panic attack may actually do more good than you’d think. If you’re not comfortable talking about your anxiety, that’s okay too. Just tell others you’re not feeling great and asked to be excused. Think about how concerned you are with other people’s perceptions of you, and then imagine that everyone else is thinking the same thing. Most people are so concerned with what other people are thinking that they don’t take the time to notice what others are doing.
  • Think calming thoughts. If you feel a panic attack on its way, there’s no point building it up in your head. Try to think calmly and positively about it. When I feel a panic attack coming on, oftentimes I’ll start laughing to myself. I find it funny that my brain is still convinced that a rising heart rate is a sign of danger, so I laugh at myself. Maybe you’re not at the point of humor, but at least you can try to avoid the catastrophic thinking. “I feel a panic attack coming on, but I know I’ll be okay.” “I only have to sit through 10 minutes of panic, and then I’ll start to feel better.”

During the panic attack:

  • Accept that it’s happening. There’s no point trying to ignore it – chemicals have started coursing through your blood, readying your body for action. You can’t hide from a panic attack.
  • Think coping thoughts, ignore negative ones.  Like I mentioned before, try not to build the panic attack up in your head. Think things like “This will be over soon” or “I’m going to be okay, nothing bad can happen to me.”
  • Take deep breaths. Diaphragmatic breathing is very important here – take in deep breaths, making sure your stomach is expanding (not retracting), and let them out slowly. You want to signal to your body that there’s no danger. Slow, deep breathing is a way of activating the relaxing mechanisms in your body to override the panic attack. Hyperventilation, which is the default panic state for most, decreases the carbon dioxide concentration in your blood, which triggers mechanisms that reduce the amount of oxygen flowing to your brain – increasing your anxiety.
  • Distraction. Once you’ve accepted that the panic attack is happening, you may want to keep your mind engaged. I find that doing mental arithmetic helps keep my brain focused on something other than the anxiety. I keep doubling numbers until I can’t keep track anymore (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and so on).
  • Feel new sensations. Exposing your senses to new stimuli can be a powerful force to combat your anxiety. However, everyone has different triggers, so there isn’t one way to accomplish this. Sometimes I want to see a familiar face or be hugged by someone I feel close to, other times I want everyone to get the hell away from me .  Sometimes I find that smelling lavender oil helps, but other times it gives me a headache which just makes me feel worse. It takes some time to figure out what sensations can help you while you’re panicking, so don’t use this as a first line of defense.
  • Advanced tip: Stay put. When you have a panic attack, I know the first thing that comes to mind is: “Get me the hell outta here!” It’s hard to stay put during a panic attack, but there’s an important reason for it. Anxiety is largely a result of faulty learning: instead of learning that a tiger or bear is a sign of danger, you’ve learned that a phone call or a group presentation is a sign of danger. Avoiding the things that make you panic is like telling your brain “Yes, you’re right, sitting through a meeting could kill me.” Once you’ve found your anxiety triggers, you will want to try to expose yourself to them without running away.

Panic attacks really sucks, huh? If there’s any take-home message I can emphasize here, it’s to learn to accept the panic. Don’t let it rule your life, or you’ll end up housebound. If you’re new to this whole anxiety stuff, then take the time to deal with it now before it gets any worse. The longer you leave your anxiety unacknowledged, the harder it will be to overcome later on.

How do you survive your panic? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below!

photo by: szeke

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