How Can I Manage Panic Attacks?

By Diana Sanchez, Staff Writer 

Photo by Kyle Broad on Unsplash

I’d heard about panic attacks enough times to know that they’re pretty bad. But hearing about it, and experiencing it are two very different things. I woke up one night awhile ago, in the middle of my very first panic attack, for no apparent reason. There had been nothing in the dream that I had woken up from that would have triggered a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe and thinking about how I couldn’t breathe was sending me through an anxious, mental spiral that made it even harder for me to breathe. I could feel my thoughts increasing my panic. I snapped on my Apple Watch to monitor my heart rate and sure enough, it was through the roof. I sat down, tried some breathing techniques, even tried to do a little yoga. When my heart slowed down slightly at those attempts I knew for sure it was a panic attack, and while it had decreased in severity, it was still very obviously there. 

Even though I wanted company more than anything, I was reluctant to wake anyone up because I was embarrassed. I thought I’d be making a big deal out of it. So I made myself some calming tea, settled into the living room couch, and tried to breathe deeply until it faded away. About 30 minutes after that I was back to normal.

I would not wish this on anyone. I’ve dealt with anxiety for as long as I can remember, and as illogical and devastating as anxiety can be, panic attacks take that to a whole different level. Of course, now that I’ve had my first panic attack, I’m well aware that I’m likely to get them again. This led to my asking a very important question: how do I manage it next time?

What is a Panic Attack?

First, it’s important to identify what a panic attack is. Panic attacks happen very suddenly and are identified by the following:

  • Intense fear
  • High heart rate, even if you are not moving
  • Trouble breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea

Panic attacks on average last between 20-30 minutes and very rarely last more than an hour. Certain triggers can cause a panic attack, but they can also happen without a cause. Take note of your surroundings and thoughts before your panic attack started to see if you can find patterns and similarities. This might help you better manage and maybe even prevent panic attacks in the future.

How Can I Manage a Panic Attack?

Talk yourself through it.

Panic attacks, while they are very real, are a response to a perceived threat that isn’t actually there. Most of the time, the reality is that you are safe, and you will be okay. Even though panic attacks seem to last forever, it will come to an end. Remind yourself of that when you’re in the middle of one. 

Don’t fight it.

The key to everything in life really is acceptance. I realized that acceptance helped with my anxiety, too. I tend to avoid my feelings which is what leads to increased anxiety levels. So when I accept situations I may not be happy with, I’m acknowledging my feelings, and that is so freeing. That doesn’t mean I’m okay with the situation - I’m simply accepting that it is there and I’m stressed about it. That is perfectly normal.

Panic attacks can be helped in a similar way. Acknowledge your panic attack. If you know what triggered it, accept that you are afraid/worried/concerned about whatever caused it. If you don’t know what triggered it, accept that, too. Unfortunately, that happens. Trying to pretend you’re not having a panic attack will make it worse.

Breathe, breathe, breathe.

Focus on your breathing. There is nothing more simple, more relaxing than that. I suggest learning some breathing techniques when you’re not in the midst of a panic attack so that you can use that technique the next time you need it. I tried a breathing technique called Nadi Shodhana and it was so incredibly helpful during my panic attack. Try exploring other videos, such as yoga for anxiety that can help you find additional ideas for how to breathe and how to relax during a panic attack.

Ground yourself.

Try to focus on your present environment. Ask yourself what do you see? Smell? Hear? Touch something and think about how you would describe it to someone else. Is there something you can taste? What’s the flavor like? How does it feel on your tongue? 

By focusing on what is actually around you, you are diffusing the fear of something that isn’t. Grounding is a great technique for managing anxiety, too.

Finally…

Panic attacks, in the moment, can be debilitating. But don’t live your life in fear of the next one. You are not alone, there are many of us who experience them. You can learn to manage them and overcome them. As with most things in life, this will get easier. And you are going to be okay.

If you are interested in checking out other blogs about mental health, check out the following:
How Can I Deal with Stress?
How to Journal for Your Mental Health
Why You Need a Mental Health Day
How to Improve Your Mental Health During COVID-19

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