A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear and anxiety. When we are in danger, adrenaline kicks in, our flight or fight reflex kicks in and our body reacts to the danger. This is how we as humans are programmed. Animals too, skunks spray a liquid with strong odour, possums play dead, some seagulls will puke all over their attackers and potato beetles cover themselves in their own excrement to protect themselves from predators. Not sure which is more tragic, depending on your own poop for safety or being referred to as a potato.
My point is, all species have some sort build in defence mechanism to protect themselves from danger, humans included. A part of our brains called our amygdala tells us when we are in danger and our adrenal glands release cortisol which is the stress hormone. Our bodies respond to danger, stress/panic/danger in lots of different ways; heart racing, sweating, dry mouth, shortness of breath and in blunt terms our stomach feels like it’s going to drop out of our arse.
The exact cause of panic attacks remains unclear but it’s basically your brain tricking you into believing that you are in some kind of danger and your body’s defence mechanisms spring to life and react to fear even though there is nothing to actual fear.
Panic attacks can happen anywhere, at any time and can be for no god damn reason. You could be browsing the aisles at Tesco or taking the washing in and next thing you know you are in the throes of an attack. It is important to note that a panic attack can happen to anyone. Panic attacks are different for each individual. They may seem to happen at random but there may be a specific “trigger” or a certain phobia, attacks can also be brought on from anxiety. For an in-depth look at Anxiety, its various disorders (Generalised Anxiety, Panic Disorder etc.) and symptoms check out my post Let’s Talk About Anxiety here
Symptoms of a panic attack are as follows:
Fear of losing control, dying, having a heart attack or losing your mind, chest pain, shortness of breath, hyperventilating, feeling light headed, dizzy, abdominal cramping, nausea, headache, feeling choked up, tingling sensation, numbness, hot flushes, chills, sweating, dry mouth, tightness in throat, feeling detached from reality, floating feeling like being in a dream where everything seems unreal, shaking, trembling and rapid heartbeat. “WHAT A FUN TIME!” Said no one ever.
Experiencing a panic attack can feel like having a heart attack and drowning at the same time. Sometimes the panic of actually having a panic attack can be even worse. That sinking feeling in your stomach, your mind drifting away from you, like your limbs aren’t your own, your world shifting on its axis like you are going to lose consciousness at any second and something screaming at you to DO SOMETHING, run, cry, scream and needing something immediately but having no idea what that something is and praying for someone to help but what kind of help you just cannot grasp while you struggle to even breathe.
Panic disorder is commonly considered as the most treatable when it comes to mental health problems. Medication can be helpful but on its own without other forms of treatment it can be become ineffective. Working with a mental health professional will help you to identify what sets your attacks off and work towards a panic attack free life. Please remember that Anxiety is EXTREMELEY common and having a panic attack does not make you weak or weird. More people than you probably realise in your life have had one at some point.
Here is a list of methods I’ve gathered that help prevent or stop a panic attack:
While experiencing a panic attack try to focus on your senses; concentrate on five things you can see (what colours are they), four you can touch (make note of different textures), two you can smell and one thing you can taste. This brings you awareness of your body and surroundings.
Try to give your system a mild physically (and HARMLESS) shock to bring you back – down a glass of icy cold water or put an ice cube in your palm and squeeze (you can wrap the cube in a paper towel or tissue to protect your skin), alternate the ice cube to each hand. Go out into cold air or crank up the air conditioning
Use technology – if you are having frequent attacks make a playlist with music that you find calming, there are also apps for smartphones that are for the sole purpose of regulating breathing during a panic attack
Read something, preferable a full page and where possible something familiar over and over again. Concentrate on each sentence. Read aloud if you have too.
Snap an elastic band or hair tie off your wrist
Use one of those ever growing in popularity mindfulness colouring books
Recite the alphabet backwards or rap a song
Chew gum, the really sharp, strong minty kind
Play with putty/playdough, bouncing a ball, crackling/ripping paper, squeeze a stress ball, rhythmically stroke a pet (there’s a lot to be said for the “stroke the furry wall” gag in the movie Get Him to The Greek, they were on to something)
Some of those tricks may seem odd but they are known to help. Please keep in mind how common panic attacks are, you are not alone and there is nothing “wrong” with you. You may feel physically and emotionally drained for days following an attack. Take care of yourself and try self soothe and calming methods to keep worry at bay.
If you have any additional tips I would love to hear them, let me know in the comments section
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Keep Shining On