Panic attacks, sometimes called anxiety attacks, bring many people to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms. With 6 million Americans suffering from panic disorder (as part of 40 million dealing with anxiety disorders in general), panic attacks are not uncommon. The symptoms often include:
- a racing heart
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- a pins and needles sensation in the lips or hands
- nausea or diarrhea
- a sense of doom
Since these symptoms can overlap with serious physical conditions, it’s important to see a doctor if you have never experienced them before. Your doctor will be able to diagnose your symptoms so that you know what you’re dealing with is panic attacks and nothing more. Once you receive a diagnosis and learn how to recognize the symptoms of a panic attack, you can more effectively manage panic attacks. Here are a few self-help strategies that you can use to help manage panic attacks on your own.
1. Understand the Truth About Panic Attacks
There is no doubt that panic attacks can be very disconcerting. It’s scary to feel your heart racing, and it’s terrifying to feel short of breath and have chest pain. It’s no wonder that many people rush to the doctor or the emergency room when they have these symptoms. As hard as it can be to believe, if you have been diagnosed with having panic attacks and these are the symptoms you’ve had in the past, you are not in any danger. A panic attack cannot kill you, cause you to have a heart attack, or cause you to become seriously ill. Simply understanding what is happening to your body during a panic attack and why it’s happening will help you to manage panic attacks when they occur.
What is happening during a panic attack is that your body has gone into “fight or flight” mode. This means that your adrenal glands is ramping up the production of hormones that you could use to fight off or run away from danger. The problem is that it happens when you’re not in any danger, so instead of taking advantage of the faster heart rate and extra oxygen, you are left worrying about why it’s happening to you. Panic attacks last a fairly short period of time. Within ten or fifteen minutes, your body will start to slow down, but you might feel spent and tired for a while afterward.
2. Use Relaxation Strategies
Knowing how to respond to a panic attack can go a long way toward getting yourself to settle down. In order to do this, you should learn some relaxation strategies. First, you can tell yourself that you are physically fine. Then, use the following techniques.
- Breath in slowly for five seconds
- Hold for five seconds
- Exhale for five seconds
- Hold again for five seconds
You can lengthen the amount of time by one second each time you complete a cycle.
You can also try grounding yourself by thinking about five things you see, four you feel, three you hear, two you smell, and one you taste. This helps you to pay attention to what’s happening around you rather than fixating on your anxiety attack symptoms.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is another good strategy to try. This is when you systematically tense and release your muscles, one group at a time, from your feet up to your head.
3. Walk Yourself Through Realistic Thinking
When you’re in the midst of a panic attack, it’s common and easy to get sucked into unrealistic thinking. Also, once you have one panic attack, you might try to avoid having another one by staying away from the situation that you were in when you had it. For instance, if you were on the bus, you might decide not to take the bus again. If you were on the beach, you might begin making excuses when friends and family urge you to spend a day on the sand with them.
It’s important to try to nip this in the bud. Consider the bus: How many times have you taken it? A few dozen or maybe a few thousand? Having a panic attack on the bus once does not mean that it will ever happen again. Even if it does, what’s the worst that could happen? You might be afraid that you’ll pass out or that others will think you’ve gone crazy. Most likely, no one will notice; if they do, they are more likely to help you than to think negative things about you. Talk yourself through these worst-case scenarios to try to get a hold of your thoughts before they become unrealistic.
4. Face Your Fears
It’s important to face your fears if you want to learn how to manage panic attacks. Once you remove the power of fear that the attacks have over you, you’re less likely to have them. Also, they will be less disturbing if you can learn to redirect your thoughts and ignore them.
You can use systematic desensitization to help you face your fears. If you are afraid of taking the bus, take the first step by making plans to take it somewhere. If that feels too hard, go stand at the bus stop for a few minutes. If a panic attack starts, address it by using your breathing or grounding exercises. The next day, go wait at the bus stop again. Wait for the bus to come and see how you feel. If you can, get on it and get off at the next stop. The next time, go a little further. By taking these small steps, you’ll be able to face your fears and avoid being bothered by panic attacks.
5. Know When It’s Time to Seek Help
While self-help strategies are a good way to manage panic attacks, they don’t work for everyone. If you feel that you’re not improving or if the fear of having an attack is making it impossible for you to do things you’ve previously enjoyed doing, it might be time to seek professional help. Talk to your doctor about getting a referral to a mental health care professional who can help. Counseling can help, and so can medication, in some cases.
Dealing with panic attacks is no fun, but it’s a common problem and one that you can overcome. Try using these strategies to manage panic attacks at home, but don’t be afraid to reach out for help. With patience and time, you can once again enjoy doing the things you love without the fear of panic attacks.