By Lauren Presutti
Let’s talk about panic attacks. Have you ever felt like your heart is pounding so fast that it’s hard to breathe? Or maybe you quickly felt dizzy or lighthearted as your anxiety suddenly skyrocketed. Maybe you even felt like you were dying in the moment. Your body likely began sweating as adrenaline consumed you. These are all signs that you were panicking, which is normal anytime we face a dangerous situation. But did you also know that panic attacks can occur even in the absence of danger?
Panic attacks are sudden, intense waves of significant fear or very high-level anxiety with or without the actual presence of real danger. Sometimes they may be triggered by specific situations. For example, if someone has a phobia of flying, they may experience a panic attack when arriving to an airport. Other times, panic attacks may occur randomly without a trigger. For example, sometimes people experience panic attacks simply because they have a biological predisposition to neurotransmitters in the brain that elicit feelings of panic. Worry is our brain’s way of trying to protect ourselves from perceived threats. When our worries become too intense, or when we find ourselves suddenly absorbing a great deal of worry all at once, a panic attack usually occurs.
Specifically for people who have experienced past trauma, panic attacks may occur throughout the lifespan. It makes sense that someone would panic during a traumatic event, but why do some trauma survivors also experience panic attacks throughout their lives? This is often because the traumatic incident created a new way for your brain to operate. The “new normal” for your brain may be a result of strong panic becoming integrated with your mind and body in a way that makes you more vigilant of your surroundings even when you are no longer near danger. An increased level of vigilance means that you are more likely to feel on guard, easily startled, jittery, or on edge.
Panic attacks are certainly unpleasant, but there are many ways to cope with them. Below are strategies that you might find helpful.
Remember that it will pass: During a panic attack, remember these feelings will pass. Although panic attacks can feel incredibly scary, the panic itself does not cause any physical harm. This is helpful to remember especially when we find ourselves panicking during a normal day when we are not faced with any real danger. We must remember that our feelings are valid – and the panic attack is very real – but we must also acknowledge that panicking is not going to harm us. Try to repeat positive affirmations to yourself during a panic attack, such as, “I am safe, this will pass, I can get through this, everything will be okay, this is a panic attack, I have gotten through panic attacks before, and I will get through this now.”
If needed, ask people in your support system if they will allow you to text or call them during a panic attack. Tell them in advance that you might need help remembering that a sudden panic attack will pass. Help the people closest to you understand in advance that panicking is a brief period of concentrated anxiety that will be over soon. Utilizing their support can also help you feel less alone during a panic attack, which may in itself help you move through the panic more quickly.
Focus on your breathing: During a panic attack, try to focus exclusively on the air coming in and out of your lungs. It can be helpful to shut out everything happening around you and simply focus on feeling the air enter your body through your nose, traveling to your stomach and diaphragm, and then back up and out. Become aware of the rhythm, whether it is rapid and shallow or slow and deep. Begin to count or name your breaths. For example, 1 on the inhalation and 2 on the exhalation, or name the individual breaths “in” and “out.” You might want to practice mindfulness or meditation during times of calmness so that your body can learn these skills in advance. If you can master this technique and embrace your ability to focus on the rhythm of your breathing, you are likely to feel more capable of successfully moving through a panic attack.
Remember that your mind is likely to wander in different directions as you try to focus on your breaths, but that is perfectly okay. It is not necessary to force your mind to be completely still. Allow your mind to wander wherever it may go, but always bring your attention back to the air traveling in and out of your body. Take as long as you need. The world can always wait for us to re-center ourselves, so don’t be afraid to step away from a stressful environment or tell others that you need a moment away and you will return when you are ready.
Notice your surroundings: It can also be helpful to look around at your surroundings and notice what you see. Consciously try to shift your attention away from the panic attack and start to notice the things around you. What shapes do you see? What colors do you see? Can you find all the colors of the rainbow? How many objects are around you? Notice and count, for example, all the objects that you see which are square and all the items that are round. What are some things that you ordinarily would not notice? For example, what do the knobs on the drawers look like? What pattern is on the floor? How high are the ceilings? How many windows are in the room? Can you hear any noises? This may seem trivial, but many people find this technique soothing to the mind because it forces us to shift our attention away from the panic.
Visualize being in a safe place: When we are experiencing a panic attack, we feel unsafe. Whether or not there is real danger present, the feeling of not being safe is real. We may feel threatened in numerous ways and it does not always mean that we feel physically in danger. For example, we may feel emotionally unsafe if we are afraid that something vulnerable about ourselves will be exposed. We may feel unsafe in terms of feeling embarrassed, confused, overwhelmed, or incapable of solving a problem. No matter why or how we are feeling unsafe, it can be helpful to visualize being in a safe place. This involves consciously shifting our mind from feeling unsafe to feeling at peace again.
Try to imagine yourself sitting in your favorite safe place. This should be a place where you have previously experienced significant calm and relaxation. Perhaps it is your childhood neighborhood. Maybe it’s a city park where you grew up or a lake where you always enjoyed yourself. It could be a summer camp that shaped you as a person. It might be a classroom where your confidence soared. It could be a best friend’s living room, your grandparents’ dinner table, a treehouse, or even your workplace. It’s important to honor whatever your safest place might be and truly embrace this imaginative strategy so that you can mentally bring yourself to that location. Fill in as many details in your mind as you can. What does that place feel like? What does it look like? What sounds do you hear there? What is the temperature like there? Does it have a particular smell? What textures can you feel in that place? The stronger you can use your imagination, the quicker it will be for you to recover from a panic attack.