Panic attacks are scary; an emotional tornado that comes out of nowhere. It feels like you are losing control physically and emotionally. Breathing and heart rate increase, and the nervous system switches over to fight-or-flight mode, bringing on sweating, rapid thought, and muscle tension. So how can panic attack symptoms be managed?
Panic can be good for us—even save our lives. Our body’s natural response to fear is to either defend ourselves or escape. So when there is a threat present, our nervous system will switch into fight-or-flight mode. Meaning it will send chemicals to our organs to prepare for an attack. Our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes shallow, etc. The fight-or-flight response is necessary to our survival. But for someone who experiences panic attacks, their bodies perceive a threat even when it is not there.
Managing anxiety and weathering a panic attack
Lean in to the symptoms
Rather than trying to avoid or run from the panic, lean into it. Trying to ignore or pull away from the physical and emotional symptoms leads to heightening those symptoms. A fear response will breed more fear and, in this case, more symptoms. Allow yourself to acknowledge the symptoms you are experiencing and remind yourself that they will pass. Panic attacks typically last about 10 minutes.
A grounding technique is just what it sounds like—grounding yourself. Getting your feet on the ground in the present moment rather than getting swept up by the emotional tornado. A grounding technique brings back the present moment by turning your focus to the world around you. Try using the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Name five things you can see around you, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. The idea behind a grounding technique is that you will more connected to your body and surroundings rather than in your head.
Just like grounding techniques, deep breathing can bring you back to the present moment. Take a few slow inhales in—hold for a moment—and breathe out. It is important to use belly breathing rather than shallow breathing. Focus on expanding your stomach like a balloon-pause-and deflate the balloon by pushing your belly button back to your spine.
Visualize a calming place in your mind. Start thinking about as much detail as possible. The sights, sounds, smells, etc. Really build a picture in your mind of that space. Visualizing a calm place will help distract you from the physical symptoms and let your brain know it can turn off the alarms for fight-or-flight.
When the storm passes there a few resources that may be worth considering. Track when you are experiencing panic attacks, symptoms, and length. Talk with your doctor at your next well visit to discuss treatment options. Counseling and/or medication can help manage panic symptoms.