Panic attacks can be debilitating in the moment, but being self-aware and equipped with knowledge can provide you with faster relief. Dr Kieran Kennedy explains how to conquer your panic attacks, step-by-step.
When it comes to anxiety, and on a scale from one to mind explosion, panic attacks are incredibly distressing. In many ways, they represent our most acute and severe experience of anxiety – an all guns blazing war zone where the mind and body ramp to red alert. Medically speaking, panic attacks are severe states of anxiety and represent sudden onset of mental and physical symptoms. Whilst some are triggered by specific situations or settings, others can appear seemingly at random.
Classically, a panic attack might involve a sense of intense panic, fear or impending doom. Struggling to breathe is common, alongside a racing heart, chest pain, tense muscles, tingling, dizziness, sweats and feeling faint. Thoughts about if we’re losing our mind, or whether we might be about to die are common. Biologically, the body and brain are in full flight or fight mode.
So if we find ourselves caught up in that anxiety firestorm, what are some key action points we can use to hit back at panic?
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1. Knowledge is power
A key part to the fire that fuels a panic attack is the mind funk they throw us into. Part of panic’s power is the vicious snowball it creates; intense anxiety leads to changes in our body, and these changes come back around to cause more anxiety and fear. The result is a spiral that grows quickly out of control.
Part of learning to attack back on panic starts in recognising what’s happening, and when, in the first place.
If you’re in any doubt, or there are physical symptoms such as chest pain or feeling faint, it’s best to see a doctor right away to rule out any other potential causes.
2. Learn your anxiety tells
When it comes to panic attacks, we’re all built slightly different. While for some, anxiety might be mostly mental, for others it’s a physical affair.
An important part of taking control of a panic attack is learning how anxiety and panic look for you. Learn to read your anxiety tells, and practice recognising when a panic attack is setting in.
3. Catch it early
When it comes to coping with panic, we’re best placed to put out any flames before they reach inferno levels. Helping stop a panic attack before it really ramps up, or calm things once it’s started, is always more successful the sooner we catch it.
Start some action steps to reduce fear and anxiety as soon as anxiety sets in.
4. Be aware of your internal dialogue
The thoughts we’re having in the background when we’re highly anxious play a big role in fuelling panic.
It’s common to think things like “I’m going to pass out”, “I think my heart might explode”, “Am I dying?”, or “They’re all going to notice and think I’m crazy”. These thoughts and fears are understandable, but they also work to make us even more anxious.
It can help to catch these thoughts in the act, and diffuse them. Remind yourself what’s happening, and that you’re going to be ok. “This is just anxiety”, “It’ll pass”.
5. Check in with your body
One of the most powerful tools in the panic attack tool kit can be short-circuiting things by calming the body.
Try a few techniques when you’re feeling anxiety rise, and work out what’s best for you. Focusing in on a particular sensation can be powerful; drink a cold glass of water slowly and concentrate fully on the sensation of the water as it’s swallowed. This same trick can work with something cold pressed against the wrist or neck.
For some, focusing in on the breath can be helpful. Slow your breathing and focus on the air moving in past the tip of your nostrils or lips/ Distraction is a biggie. Focus in on a calming piece of music, or try out mindful watching (choosing an item in the room and zeroing in on everything about it – it’s colour, texture, shape).
6. Practice makes perfect
Learning our anxiety tells, catching it early and practising what works to calm things can all take time. Even if it feels impossible to start with, chip away and you’ll find it gets easier each time. Write down your anxiety cues, reassuring/reminder thoughts and steps for reducing panic on your phone and bring this note up as soon as you start to get that anxious niggle.
It can be a real challenge, particularly when panic is powerful, and so gaining some support and help with all these steps can really benefit from having a professional on board. Talk to your doctor, and think about getting a mental health care plan and/or referral to a psychologist from your GP to really get the ball rolling.
Follow mental health advocate Dr Kieran Kennedy @drkierankennedy.