A panic attack is defined as a sudden rush of intense fear or discomfort. Panic attacks are accompanied by at least four physical symptoms, such as a racing heartbeat or palpitations, sweating, shaking, difficulty breathing, a choking sensation, dizziness, and stomach upset (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Picture this: you’re driving, when all of a sudden your heart begins to race, you’re hot, your palms are sweaty, your feet feel numb, and it seems you can no longer feel the car pedals. You’re overwhelmed, and feel out of control. You think you’re having a heart attack. Though many of the physical symptoms you’re experiencing are similar to those of a heart attack, you may actually be having a panic attack. It’s also common for people to believe they’re “going crazy” or that they’re dying during a panic attack.
If this sounds familiar, it goes without saying that panic attacks can feel intense and dreadful, especially since they often strike when you least expect them.
Though a typical panic attack generally lasts only about five to ten minutes, it can take much longer for all the distressing emotions and physical symptoms to fully subside. Furthermore, having had a panic attack usually triggers fearful thoughts and emotions in people, which in turn, intensifies feelings of anxiety. It’s especially common for people who struggle with panic attacks to become highly afraid of having them again in the future.
Therefore, the key to coping with panic attacks lies in taming your fear around having them in the first place. Consider trying the three following strategies:
- Educate yourself: As with many aspects of life, the unknown can seem scary and intimidating. The more you know about your panic attacks, the less likely you are to fear them. Even more, the less you fear your panic attacks, the less likely you are to have them. Gather information from reputable sources, such as mental health organization websites and the library. Your knowledge will help you understand what to expect during an attack, so you’ll be less afraid of your symptoms when they do arise.
- Acknowledge and accept: This is important because the attempt to resist or avoid panic attack symptoms can lead to increased anxiety. Think back to a time when you recently had a panic attack. Chances are, you’ll recognize that your feelings of fear and nervousness played a big part in escalating the panic attack. Next time, notice how altering your perception of your panic attacks helps to alleviate their intensity. Another way of thinking about it is to “ride the wave”, labelling your experience as a panic attack, and reassuring yourself that although an attack can feel very uncomfortable, it’s short-lived and not dangerous.
- Choose an alternative response: Now that you understand and accept your panic attacks, you can alter the way you respond to them. Instead of reacting to your physical symptoms with fearful thoughts, such as “I’m going to lose control”, learn to respond in a calm manner. Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, and guided imagery can help counteract your panic attack symptoms. Repeating positive coping statements to yourself, including “I have the tools I need to cope with my panic attacks,” or “My panic attack is only temporary,” can also be helpful.
Changing how you react can help you gain a sense of control during panic attacks. As with anything else in life, practice makes perfect (or at least as close to perfect as is humanly possible). Reframe your panic attacks as an opportunity to practice the strategies outlined in this article. Of course, if you feel you might benefit from added support, one of Lightwell’s tailored anxiety treatment programs may be right for you.
A final note: If you think you’re having panic attacks, but haven’t been assessed by a health professional, it’s recommended that you visit your family doctor to discuss your concerns, and to rule out any potential medical causes for your symptoms.