Have you ever experienced a moment of intense anxiety that seemed to have hit you out of nowhere? Your heart was pounding out of your chest, your vision was getting blurry, and you were feeling entirely overpowered by a sensation of impending doom.
That’s what people who struggle with panic attacks are going through whenever their anxiety gets out of hand.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly 6 million adults in the U.S. struggle with panic disorder and women seem to be twice as likely to develop this condition.
As you can imagine, one episode of intense panic is enough to ruin your entire day. And the worst part is that it’s almost impossible to predict when the next panic attack will hit. That’s why mental health professionals focus mainly on helping patients understand how panic attacks work so that they will be able to manage them.
In other words, you don’t cure panic attacks; you learn to (1) handle them and (2) reduce their frequency by managing your anxiety.
What are panic attacks anyway?
Panic attacks represent the ‘central piece’ of anxiety disorders. A panic attack manifests itself through a brief episode of intense fear and discomfort. At a physical level, such episodes are associated with dizziness, sweating, blurry vision, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, nausea, or a vague sensation of discomfort in the chest area.
From a psychological perspective, panic attacks are characterised by an intense and uncontrollable fear of death. Aside from that, people who struggle such episodes of overwhelming panic, are afraid of losing control or going ‘crazy.’
Considering the intensity of the symptoms, it’s no surprise many of us feel powerless and ‘doomed’ in the face of panic attacks.
But before we learn how to manage panic attacks, there are two aspects we need to clarify.
Sometimes, panic attacks can come out of nowhere
Although researchers and mental health professionals have been studying panic attacks for decades, there’s no way of telling when the next one is going to hit. There are simply too many variables that play a role in the onset of anxiety disorders.
In a way, we could argue that panic attacks are like summer storms. One minute you feel perfectly comfortable and the next you feel like all hell breaks loose. In fact, this relatively unpredictable pattern that characterises panic attacks is one of the main reasons why people are so terrified of them.
But just because they seem to come out of nowhere, doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do about them.
For starters, remember that, despite what your anxious mind is telling you, it’s impossible to die from panic attacks. Yes, your heart is pounding like crazy, and yes, you’re feeling out of breath. But that’s just how your body reacts under the influence of intense panic. It’s what it was designed to do when your mind signals a potential threat.
The only problem is that anxiety makes us see danger where there’s none.
How to handle panic attacks the smart way:
1. Remember to breathe
Since panic attacks are characterised by breathing difficulties, perhaps a good way to manage them is by retaking control over our breathing.
If you’ve ever struggled with a panic attack, you probably know that during an intense episode of panic, you tend to take deep shallow breaths. In other words, you’re gasping for air, fearing that your worst nightmare – I’m going to die – has come to life. As a result, hyperventilation kicks in, making you feel dizzy and lightheaded – two reactions that you might interpret as yet another sign of danger.
But what if instead of breathing ‘desperately’ and chaotically, you would take slow and steady breaths? I know it sounds difficult, but all you need is a bit of self-awareness to pause during those critical moments and get a handle on your breathing.
Once you begin to breathe slowly and steadily, you will notice that other symptoms start to fade away along with the panic that has put that entire nightmare in motion.
2. Ground yourself
When a panic attack hits, it almost feels like your entire world has turned upside down. Your judgement gets clouded, your bodily reactions are out of control, and all you can think about is “OMG, I’m going to die!”
Truth be told it’s somewhat difficult to ignore all those unpleasant sensations associated with fear and panic.
Fortunately, there is a way to deactivate your brain’s alarm system. It’s called ‘grounding,’ and it’s a simple technique that allows you to get out of your head for a moment and gain some control over the situation.
Next time you find yourself struggling with an intense sensation of panic, look around you and spot:
- Five things you can see
- Four things you can touch
- Three things you can hear
- Two things you can smell
- One thing you can taste
That will help you remain grounded in the ‘here and now’ instead of the irrational ‘panicky’ thoughts that are racing through your head during a panic attack.
3. See a mental health professional
In the end, the real source of panic attacks is anxiety. Although people can occasionally experience brief episodes of panic that are not necessarily linked to a form of anxiety disorder, having frequent panic attacks is a clear sign that something needs to be done asap.
And the best way to approach this issue is by consulting a mental health professional who can assess your condition and come up with an intervention plan that will help you manage panic attacks and reduce their frequency.