Panic Attacks – Taking Back Control

Panic Attacks – Taking Back Control

Nearly 1 in 3 people will experience a panic attack in their lifetime.

Emma from our team has history of panic attacks since 11 years old, but it came to a head during the pandemic – feeling overwhelmed and uncertain made Emma’s false alarms more frequent and heightened. As a result, Emma has been researching a lot about panic attacks, and is still on a journey to fully understand her triggers and techniques that help them become manageable again.

“It’s been really difficult to live inside my head for the last few years and having no real escape has been confronting but a massive learning curve. There’s been no other option to work with what’s happening. I’ve shared my experience with anxiety, which is a journey in itself, but attaching a panic disorder to the anxious thoughts and patterns has been a challenge.

I experience a racing heart rate, light-headed and dissociative feelings, shallow breathing, clamminess, ringing in my ears, tunnel vision and an overwhelming feeling of dread sometimes resulting in a fainting episode where I feel like my brain just needs to press the restart button like when a computer has too many tabs open and needs a restart.

The combination of these sensations can be so scary that anxious thoughts about panic attacks can be just as suffocating and overwhelming as the attack itself. But I’m learning to work with what’s happening and am feeling so much stronger and more confident in my ability to manage these moments where things feel a bit too much.”

What is a Panic Attack (or widely known as a False Alarm)?

They are a type of fear response and an exaggeration of the body’s normal response to danger or stress. People will perceive different events to be of differing levels of stress. For example, someone may feel an inordinate level of fear of being in a lift, where others will not even think about it. The former persons’ body may develop signs of a panic attack in response to this perceived threat, and act accordingly, hence the reference to false alarms.

During a panic attack you get a rush of intense mental and physical symptoms. It can come on very quickly and for no apparent reason. They can last between 5 and 20 minutes but some can last up to an hour, and their frequency depends on the severity of the condition. It’s really helpful if triggers can be identified in order to start to overcome them.

Symptoms Include

  • a racing heartbeat
  • feeling faint
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • trembling
  • hot flushes
  • chills
  • shaky limbs
  • a chocking sensation
  • dizziness
  • numbness or pins and needles
  • dry mouth
  • a need to go to the toilet
  • ringing in your ears
  • a feeling of dread or fear of dying
  • a churning stomach
  • a tingling in your fingers
  • feeling like you’re not connected to your body

Although panic attacks are frightening, they’re not dangerous. An attack will not cause any physical harm, and it’s unlikely you’ll be admitted to hospital if you have one. It may seem counterintuitive but fighting these sensations doesn’t help. It actually could make them worse as your focus is solely on them. Doing nothing is a much better approach.

Of course, everyone will experience different sensations during a panic attack, but the resounding advice is to sit with the feelings and let them pass – focusing on them and fighting them can do more damage than good.

THE ANXIETY CYCLE is something that Emma has learned about and thought it would be really useful to cover in our series of posts.

This is when we have an anxious thought or trigger towards the fight or flight response. As a reaction, our body will start working up to responding to the danger – be it with a racing heart rate, change in breathing, etc. As our minds tune into these sensations, instead of seeing these as a response to a perceived threat, we may assign meaning. For example, a racing heart rate could be misconstrued as someone experiencing a heart attack, which will inevitably cause more anxious thoughts, sensations and meaning.

👉 ANXIETY 👉 SENSATIONS 👉 MEANING 👉 INCREASED ANXIETY 👉 INCREASED SENSATIONS 👉 HEIGHTENED MEANING

Some Techniques to Try Out

Remember it will pass

A panic attack can feel really scary, and with sensations that can mean so many different things, but remember that this moment will pass.

It is an intense moment of anxiety and as your body begins to realise that there is no threat to prepare for, it will level out again. As we mentioned before, panic attacks can last between 5 and 20 minutes so being able to sit with the feelings and let them pass naturally is one of the best things you can do.

Breathing

Emma has found that breathing techniques can be really helpful, especially as her breathing changes during a panic attack, and it’s also a way to distract the brain in the moment.

There are loads of different versions of breathing techniques, but Emma likes Box Breathing, which we’ve covered in a post before. Find which one works for you!

Find a peaceful/safe spot

This can be hard if you’re out in public, but it can be helpful to find a place to sit to work through your techniques and let the panic attack pass.

Focus on something

Focusing on one stimulus can draw attention away from another, and this is a great way to break the anxiety cycle we mentioned earlier

The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a great way to change focus:

  • Look at 5 separate objects – Think about each one for a short while.
  • Listen for 4 distinct sounds – Think about where they came from and what sets them apart.
  • Touch 3 objects – Consider their texture, temperature, and what their uses are.
  • Identify 2 different smells – This could be the smell of your coffee, your soap, or the laundry detergent on your clothes.
  • Name 1 thing you can taste – Notice whatever taste is in your mouth, or try tasting a piece of candy.
Repeat a mantra
  • “This too shall pass”
  • “I am safe”
  • “I allow my emotions to flow through me”
  • “This feeling is temporary”
  • “I inhale calm and exhale tension”

Feel free to come up with your own and let us know what works for you!

Tell someone

If panic attacks happen regularly, it’s handy to communicate that to those close to you. At home, in the workplace or socialising. It doesn’t have to be an explicit conversation, but being open to discuss your experiences and letting others know how best to help you in those situations can be a comfort.

Learn your triggers

This is a tough one and one that will take a bit of time, but identifying triggers can be so empowering! When you feel more able to manage those moments, it’s a game changer!

Please get in touch with us if you’d like to discuss your experiences with panic or share this with someone that you think would benefit from anything we’ve covered.

Author: Emma O’Connor