It’s really hard to explain the sensation of a panic attack to someone who has never experienced it. Everyone feels some level of anxiety at some point, and an anxiety attack may include symptoms such as feeling afraid and apprehensive, going through shortness of breath, and having their pulse racing. But these symptoms are usually very temporary, and very often they can stop when the immediate cause (such as a rollercoaster ride, a frightening movie, or being followed in a dark alley) is over.
When you feel anxious, it generally means that you’re in a stressful situation. Your body is telling you to be alert. Learning how to deal with anxiety if it’s keeping you from acting properly involves practicing several well-known calming methods.
What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is different than anxiety and much more serious. Learning how to deal with a panic attack starts with knowing what it is. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), a panic attack is a sudden feeling of intense terror and discomfort. In general, at least 4 of the following symptoms are involved:
- A pound heart or palpitations
- Effusive perspiration
- Shaking and trembling
- A choking feeling
- Shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered
- Chest pains
- Abdominal distress or nausea
- Feeling faint, unsteady, or dizzy
- Cold or hot flashes
- Tingling or numb sensations
- Feeling detached from yourself or a feeling of unreality
- Fear of going crazy or losing control
- Fear of dying
A panic attack can come at any time. Many don’t really need treatment for a panic attack since they only experience it once or twice. But others may experience repeated attacks, and that means that it is crucial to learn how to prevent a panic attack, and how to stop a panic attack once it has occurred.
Doctors are still learning more and more about anxiety and panic disorders. Basically, anxiety could be normal, but anxiety and panic orders are much more serious.
- You can suffer from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which is typically characterized by unrealistic and persistent worry about normal everyday things.
People with this condition can be overly worried about their health, family situations, money, or work. The treatment for anxiety disorders like this can include medication. Your doctor can prescribe the best antidepressant for anxiety in your case.
The cure for anxiety may include tricyclic antidepressants, benzodiazepines, SNRIs, and SSRIs.
- In some cases, your panic attacks are associated with specific situations. For example, some people may undergo a panic attack right before giving a speech, or climb a great height, or going into military combat. Some people coping with a panic attack tend to solve the problem simply by avoiding these situations in the first place. But the list of possible situational causes can grow, and pretty soon you end up avoiding just about every situation outside your home.
- Agoraphobia may also develop. It’s now believed that the fear of open public spaces is a complication of a panic attack. You start avoiding public spaces where your attacks can be embarrassing or where help can be difficult to get. This can start within a year of your first recurring a panic attack.
Diagnosing Panic Attacks
If you keep having a panic attack, you can seek some form of social anxiety treatment from your doctor—provided that the problem is first diagnosed properly. It’s also crucial that your doctor should check out any possible physical causes. A panic attack can be the result of no clear cause, it can be caused by severe stress such as military combat or the death of a loved one, or there can be a physical cause.
- Medical conditions that may cause a panic attack include hypoglycemia or low blood sugar, and hyperthyroidism or an overactive thyroid gland. It can also be caused by a mitral valve prolapse, which is a minor problem when one of the valves in your heart doesn’t close properly.
- Your panic attacks may also be caused by some form of stimulant. Some people who have used amphetamines or cocaine have reported a panic attack. Even people who drink too much caffeine can have the problem.
- Medication withdrawal may also cause the anxiety.
Possible Treatment Options
So what can you do? Learning how to handle a panic attack can be very effective with the help of a counselor who knows how to treat a panic attack. The various treatment options include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. This is considered by many as an extremely effective way to treat a panic attack. In CBT, you focus on how you think and behave, and you try to figure out how your thoughts and actions are causing or sustaining the panic attack. You also get to look more realistically at the consequences of a panic attack.One fear that many people with panic disorders share is the fear of having an attack while driving. After all, a panic attack sometimes resembles a heart attack, and such an episode can result in a serious automobile accident. But the reality is that there’s very little chance of crashing your car, and you can just simply slow down and pull over. Once you understand the lack of basis for your constant fear of having a panic attack, you can lessen your general anxiety level.
- Exposure therapy. This is a term for a treatment that involves “facing your fears”. You start by going through the physical sensations of having a panic attack, while you’re in a safe and controlled setting. You can be asked to hold your breath or to hyperventilate, and shake your head from side to side. These actions can cause similar symptoms to ones you feel when you’re in panic mode.Since you know you’re safe, you can then learn how to control a panic attack. You’re less scared of the sensations, so you get a greater feeling of control over yourself during an attack.Part of the treatment also involves being exposed to the situations you’re afraid to face. You’re asked to go through the experience with your therapist helping you, so that you can face your fears until the feeling of panic evaporates. This can teach you that such a situation isn’t really dangerous to you at all, so you can get a better handle on your emotions.
- In general, using medication doesn’t really resolve the problem of a panic attack at all. It can help with extreme and severe cases to reduce the symptoms, but its use should be just part of a more comprehensive solution. Other treatments are needed to deal with the underlying cause of the panic problem.
Medications may be used when the panic attack is simply one of the symptoms of a more general anxiety or panic disorders. Antidepressants are commonly prescribed, but they take time to work. You may wait for several weeks before you can notice some improvement. That’s why you have to take it regularly, and not just during a panic attack.
One type of medication used is Benzodiazepines. These medications treat anxiety, and when they are taken while undergoing a panic attack symptoms are often relieving very quickly. They can work in just an hour, or even in just 30 minutes. However, it’s not the ideal way of learning how to cure a panic attack because they’re very addictive. When you stop taking them, you may go through withdrawal symptoms.
The AWARE Method
Some experts (including Dr. Oz) have talked about the AWARE method on how to stop a panic attack.
- A is for Accepting the anxiety. You just have to accept it, in much the same way we accept things we don’t like. You don’t ignore it, and you don’t fight it either. It’s like dealing with a tax you don’t particularly think is fair, but you pay it anyway. Getting angry just won’t help in either case and in the case of anxiety you just make things worse when you can’t keep your temper in check. So just accept the symptoms and understand that you’re afraid.
- W is for Waiting. When you feel the panic, don’t react right away. Take some time out and wait, just as you’ve probably heard that you should count to 10 before you do anything when you’re angry. You can just take a single minute to just stand still instead of fighting or fleeing or any instinctive reaction you may take. That minute of reflection can restore your ability to think straight.
- A is for Action. So now that you accept that you’re in panic mode and now you’ve also taken the time to regain your thoughts. Once you’ve taken a minute, it’s time to take some action. One action you can take is to make yourself more comfortable, perhaps by regulating your breathing. After all, your breathing is one of the behaviors most commonly affected by a panic attack.One common panic attack what to do is to deal with hyperventilation. You can start by holding your breath for about 10 to 15 seconds, which you can then do a few times to reset your more normal breathing pattern. Then you can breathe through your nose as you count to 7, while you take time to breathe out as you count to 11. This is the 7-11 method that you can practice every day, and breathing like this can relieve your panic.You can also indulge in some sort of internal (and silent) dialogue with yourself. Perhaps you can think about the symptoms and decide if it’s actually dangerous or just uncomfortable. You can tell yourself that an attack is a convenient way to find out how well you can practice all the coping tactics you’ve learned.You can even just continue to do what you were doing at the time. You can focus on what’s happening now instead of what may happen in the future. You can do some jumping jacks to vent some excess energy,
- R is for Repeat. You can feel the panic in waves, and you may think that your coping techniques aren’t doing any good. But feeling a renewal of the panic is common, so don’t think that your coping methods aren’t working at all. Just repeat the various other steps you’ve taken so far.
- E is for End. You also have to keep reminding yourself that there’s a definite beginning and end for your panic attacks. They’re temporary, and you won’t be trapped in a state of perpetual panic. Reminding yourself of this fact can help calm you down as your fear won’t feed itself.
What else can you do to help prevent or deal with a panic attack more effectively? Here are some bonus tips that may help:
- Avoid stimulants. These stimulants can make you feel as if you’re having an attack, and such feelings can indeed lead to real full-blown attacks. We’re not just talking about amphetamines and cocaine, either. Some diet pills and cold medications that don’t make you feel drowsy can contain stimulants. It may also be wise to quit smoking altogether, while you also avoid caffeinated beverages including coffee, tea, and soda.
- Ground yourself. Grounding techniques are designed to counter the feeling of disorientation you may get when you’re in panic mode. It involves bringing yourself into the present, and it includes ways of knowing where you really are by connecting with something solid. So you can start just by bracing yourself against a wall, or by concentrating on the sensation of your feet on the ground. When you’re driving, you can concentrate on the feeling on your hands as you hold the steering wheel.
- Think about something methodical. When you’re in a panic, thinking becomes much harder to do. So you can force your brain to work by doing some simple math exercises. For example, you can start from 100 and begin counting backwards in 3s or 7s (not 5s, since that’s too easy). Start with 100 and then go to 93, 86. 77, 72, etc. You can also read the paper, or try the crossword or Sudoku puzzle there.
- Practice daily. Imagine yourself in a situation that often causes a panic attack, such as a party where you’re asked to give a speech, or that you’re in your car driving. Imagine that you feel the panic in that situation, and then imagine taking hold of yourself while undergoing a panic attack. Visualizing this daily can turn the onset of a real attack much less terrifying since it’s so familiar.
- Splash cold water on your face. Sometimes this can wake you up from your panic attack. One study found that splashing cold water can cause bodily reactions such as dialing down your heart rate and boosting your immune system.
- Make sure you get enough magnesium in your diet. It’s been found that magnesium deficiency can result in anxiety. Dark chocolate is rich in magnesium, and you can also try foods rich in magnesium like tuna, mackerel, and bananas.
You can also try out baths with Epsom salts. Epsom salts contain magnesium, and when you use them in a bath your skin absorbs the magnesium easily.
- Massage your hands. Just use one thumb to press on the palm of the other hand. It’s quite relaxing, and it’s also very easy to do even when you’re out in public among other people.
- Get some regular massages. A massage alleviates the stress that can lead to a panic attack by reducing cortisol levels and boosting dopamine and serotonin levels. Serotonin regulates your mood, while the dopamine is associated with the pleasure centers in your brain. Scalp massages are particularly helpful since they improve blood circulation to the brain and they also reduce the muscle tension in the back of your head and neck.
- Palm push and praying. You can start by pushing your palms together for 10 seconds or so, and since you’re already in a prayer posture you may as well pray. Try a meditative prayer, and if you’re Catholic you can always try the rosary. And even if you’re not religious, you can always chant a mantra.
- Warm your hands. Your hands may feel shaky or sweat when you’re in a panic attack, but they also get cold because your blood is mostly going to the shoulders and hips while in panic mode. So warm your hands, and this breaks the stress response. You can hold a cup of warm decaf, or sit in a warm bath. You can even imagine yourself warming your hands over a fire.
Go to a Doctor
If you ever experience a single panic attack, tell your doctor about it. Don’t be surprised if they’re not too concerned, as many people go through this problem once or just twice in their lives. But when you experience them regularly, at least your doctor can take steps to address the issue. What you have to understand is that the problem is treatable – and that understanding can go a long way in assuaging your fears.