Having a panic attack is nobody’s idea of fun. Suddenly your heart will begin to race and pound as though it’s about to break out of your chest. You may well find that you begin to sweat profusely. Your mind will wander and you’ll think of all the worst things that can possibly happen.
Your vision will start to become blurry and focussed to the point that you can’t see what’s going on around you. Eventually, this will eat into the center of your vision and that’s when the risk of collapsing gets real.
You’ll breathe quickly, you’ll feel sick, you may vomit and if you pass out then it can be very dangerous or at least embarrassing.
But don’t worry. Firstly: this is a condition that will affect one-third of people at some point in their lives. And for almost everyone, it is a phase that passes. It’s all a matter of learning to control the panic and attacks and to do that, you simply have to recognize the symptoms and know what to do with them.
One of the most notable changes that occur in your body when a panic attack strikes are what happens with your breathing. You’ll find that your breathing becomes very rapid and shallow, which is a result of your sympathetic nervous system taking over. Your body thinks it is in danger, and as such, it is trying to provide you with as much oxygen as possible.
This then sends signals back to your body to say that, seeing as you’re breathing a lot, you must be in danger. Your physiology is reinforcing itself.
So you need to control your breathing and get it back to normal, which will stimulate your vagal nerve in order to engage the parasympathetic nervous system again.
Try to slow down your breathing then and to keep it calm and rhythmic. Better yet, try to use the military technique known as ‘box breathing’. Here, you breathe in slowly for the count of four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, breathe out slowly for four seconds, and then hold for another four seconds.
As mentioned, your body is trying to help you when it goes into this state by supplying as much oxygen as possible.
Problem is, things are kind of kicking into hyperdrive to the point where it is no longer adaptive or conducive to good health. You’re actually not breathing out enough and as such, you are flooding the body with oxygen but expelling all your CO2. That’s a problem because your body needs CO2 in order to extract oxygen from red blood cells.
So, despite breathing an awful lot, your brain is now becoming starved of oxygen and as such, it is going to start shutting down. That’s why we faint!
So, to avoid this problem, you can try rebreathing. That means grabbing a paper bag and breathing into that. This way, you will use up the oxygen that’s in the bag and you’ll instead be recycling the CO2 – preventing the issue we just discussed.
3. Sit Down
There are two very good reasons to sit down at this point. One is that if you are at any risk of fainting, then you need to be sat down so that you won’t fall and hurt yourself. Don’t worry too much about this – the human body is surprisingly resilient and especially when we are limp. But that said, it’s always better not to fall onto your face!
The other reason to sit down is that this will send signals to your body that you are calm and in no danger (or why would you be sitting down?). In fact, if you can find a chair that reclines and lean back a bit, this may do even better. Studies show that when we are in a more supine position, we feel more relaxed. This can even help to stimulate creativity!
At the same time, you can now make an effort to relax your body and your muscles. You can even use the ‘body scan’ technique, which involves going from your head to your toes, gradually making sure each muscle on the way is as completely relaxed as you can possibly make it.
4. Use Wide Angle Vision
This is a trick for fighting panic attacks that most people have no idea about! The idea is that you’re going to be looking through your eyes using your peripheral vision – rather than just focussing on one point, you’re going to widen your gaze and include things in the corners of your vision.
One way to ‘engage’ this wide-angled vision is to hold your hands out to either side with your arms straight. Now ‘wiggle’ your fingers and make an effort to watch them wiggling out of either side of your eyes.
By doing this, you’ll be able to avoid the tunnel vision which comes from panic attacks. At the same time, this once again provides feedback to your autonomic nervous system. Because you aren’t intently focused, it suggests that you aren’t in immediate danger and thus your heart rate, etc. will slowly calm back down and return to normal – especially if you combine this technique with others listed here.
5. Have a Sugary Drink
One great way to combat a panic attack is to have some sugar. This works because the sugar will replenish the glucose in your blood, which may well be very dipped.
Useful to recognize is that our biology and our psychology are very closely linked. When blood sugar is low, this actually reduces our ability to create serotonin – the feel-good hormone. In turn, that leads to an increase in cortisol, which is the stress hormone/stress neurotransmitter. This is why we feel anxious or jittery when we get hungry… and also why some people get ‘hangry’!
When you drink something sugary though, you can restore the blood sugar and the serotonin and help to ease and calm your mind (serotonin is also calming).
6. Accept the Panic Attack
One of the worst things you can do when you’re struggling with a panic attack is to try and ‘fight it’. Many people don’t want the panic attack to occur and so they will get upset and stressed about the fact that it is happening. They then fight against it and generally all this does is to work them up even more! The irony is that the angrier you get at the panic, the more panicked you become…
So instead of fighting against it, instead try to stay calm and just let it happen. This way, you will be better able to calm your nervous system and return to normal. In fact, many people recommend that you simply go about your usual business and act ‘as normal’ in order to ignore the issue and let it fade away.
This takes practice and work, but with meditation and repeated attempts, you’ll get there!
7. Rule Out Other Conditions
We’ve just seen that ‘panicking about the panic attack’ is one of the worst things you can do.
And there’s actually an even bigger reason that many people will panic when they have a panic attack: because they think they’re having a heart attack!
To those unfamiliar with the experience of a heart attack, the symptoms might sound very similar. You may find that your chest feels tight and painful. You might find that you struggle to breathe. And you’ll, of course, notice your heart rate going out of control and feeling as though it will burst through your ribcage. Many people will now genuinely fear that they’re going to die and of course, this does very little for their overall mood! The result is that they often end up getting much more worked up.
Of course, you should always check with a doctor if you think there’s a risk of a heart attack. But if you’re young, female or generally healthy, then the likelihood of that is slim. Speak with your physician and remember next time that it was a panic attack. In this case, the only thing to fear really is fear itself!
8. Try Supplements
There are many supplements you can buy over the counter that can help you to combat panic attacks – or that are just generally relaxing and calming. For example, 5HTP is ‘5 hydroxytryptophan’ which the body turns into serotonin once ingested. This is important for as we’ve already seen, serotonin is a substance that improves the mood and which also relaxes the mind.
Another similar option is to consume anything that will boost GABA. It’s unclear when GABA supplements themselves will cross the blood-brain barrier, but there are other supplements out there that can raise this substance naturally and may help with panic attacks as a result. Always check with your physician first.
9. Use CBT
CBT is ‘cognitive behavioral therapy’ and this is the very best option for combating panic attacks. This is a form of psychotherapeutic intervention that involves addressing the contents of your thoughts and changing the way you think about things.
In this case, that means recognizing the thoughts and the feelings that lead to panic attacks and stopping them in their tracks. Doctors recommend this as the number one treatment for the condition and there are a lot of different components that can help such as mindfulness meditation, breathing techniques, and ‘thought restructuring’. The best part is that it can be self-taught in many cases and practiced from home. Recovery rates with CBT are very positive.
10. Use Meds
There are many medications that your doctor can prescribe for panic attacks, which tend to work in similar manners to the supplements discussed earlier. These include SSRIs and a host of anxiolytics such as barbiturates and beta-blockers.
These can be rather potent and in some cases may cause drowsiness and other issues – so they shouldn’t be the first port of call. However, when used sparingly to address acute symptoms, they can be very helpful. Use them with your doctor’s supervision, while making sure to use the other techniques on this list to address the root cause of the problem.