Have you ever had a panic attack? Panic attacks are the end result of our natural fight/flight response gone wild. Symptoms can include:
Shortness of breath, shallow breathing
Feeling of choking
Feeling sick and having stomach cramps
Feeling dizzy, faint or lightheaded
Numbness or tingling feelings
Hot flushes or chills
Feelings of unreality or of being detached from oneself
As they experience these symptoms, the person having them worries they are going crazy, or dying. Pretty scary, right? Once you’ve had one, the fear of having another can stop you from going out in public for fear of having another one (having had a panic attack, and being fearful of having another, are the main criteria for diagnosing Panic Disorder).
Panic attacks are the end result of mixing our natural fight/flight response to danger with unhelpful and fearful thinking.
This is how panic attacks happen
The longer this goes on, the more fear that is created. Particularly as that lack of rational thought mentioned above causes you to act from your emotions more than logically – beyond a certain point, fear will override any rational thoughts you have about what might be happening.
The spiral of worrying leading to more physical symptoms which then lead to more worrying will continue until you either faint, or are able to become calmer and stop worrying in another way – usually with somebody else’s help (sometimes this is medical help). The intensity of your fear often leads to hyperventilating. If no one can help you (often other people have intervened and helped by this point), then your body will cause you to faint so you temporarily stop breathing and it can restore the oxygen balance in your system.
Obviously, this is not fun. No wonder people get afraid of having another one!
How can you stop yourself, or somebody else, from having a panic attack?
It’s important to remember that the start of a panic attack is worrying about the physical sensations which are associated with anxiety, NOT the physical symptoms themselves. Telling yourself that because your breathing is different, that means something terrible – that it means you will become unable to breathe, and suffer the consequences of that (either fearing death, or fearing the embarrassment of fainting and an ambulance coming), is how you cause a panic attack. Other common worries are that you’re having a heart attack or a stroke (many people end up in emergency rooms thinking this way, only to discover that it was actually anxiety).
Panic attacks tend to happen to people who are natural ‘worriers’, people who take a situation and imagine the worst possible interpretation/outcome on a regular basis. If that’s you, here, are some ideas on how to change that.
You need to find ways to change/distance yourself from your worries every day
Try playing the worst case/best case game. Every time you catch yourself predicting that something bad will happen, make yourself stop and imagine the absolute best that could happen. This trains your mind to see that both possibilities are actually equally unlikely and starts to create a new, more positive thinking habit in your mind.
When you catch yourself worrying, tell yourself ‘that’s just the anxious part of my brain talking.’ You can then add to this by then asking: ‘I wonder what the relaxed part of myself would say about this situation?’ or ‘I wonder what X would tell me?’ (X could be a calming, trusted friend, or Oprah – anyone who you feel is a role model for remaining relaxed and calm).
Try thanking your worries. Say to yourself ‘thanks for trying to protect me here, but really, I’m okay.’ Then distract yourself by focussing on something else. Each time a worry creeps in, just think to yourself ‘thanks for that, mind’ and then focus back on whatever you’re doing.
Learn about all the physical symptoms of a panic attack (tick, you’re reading this article!). It’s the fear of what’s happening to you when you experience the physical symptoms of anxiety that brings on a full blown panic attack. Once you come to understand what’s occurring in your body (and understand that anxiety/panic attacks can’t kill you) your worries will be less, making it less likely you’ll experience another one.
If you know that you ‘re a ‘natural worrier’ then your best plan is to seek assistance from a psychologist to change this (contact me, for example!). You were not born worried! Worrying is a habit and it can be unlearnt. If you often find yourself thinking of the worst possible outcomes in a situation, or spending a lot of time playing the ‘but what if…’ game in your mind, then you have the conditions needed to get a panic attack started if the wrong type of situation comes along and it’s best to seek preventative help.
What to do if you find yourself starting to have a panic attack anyway
To stop things escalating you need to stop worrying! Easier said than done. Aside from the ideas in the previous section, it can be helpful to:
Tell someone your fears – once you say them to someone else, you can often hear how unrealistic they are, or the other person can help you to see this. Sneak off to the toilets and make a quick call or text if you have to or even just write your fears into the Notes app on your phone – just seeing them written down can be enough for some people to realise they’re being unrealistic.
Place your focus away from your body – focus on the people you’re with and what they’re saying, what you can see/hear/smell etc. Really try to concentrate and take it all in. Reducing your focus on your body will reduce the worrying about what’s happening to it and this will slow down/stop the physical symptoms too.
If you really feel like you’re losing control, ask for a hug if one is available. Strong, physical touch helps a lot of people to feel calmer – human touch encourages us to relax and reassures your body that someone is there, protecting you from the threat.
If you feel light headed, sit or lie down. Focus on slowing down your breathing – lightheadness is a sign that you’re getting too much oxygen in from breathing too fast. This is why people who are panicking are given brown paper bags to breathe into. Breathing in and out of the same small area reduces your oxygen intake, helping you to return to normal.
Now you know how a panic attack works and how to slow one down, you’re already less likely to need this information in the future. Yay! But if you struggle to control or distance yourself from worry, then please get in contact to receive personalised assistance to change. You can outgrow being a ‘natural’ worrier and it’s totally worth the investment to do so!
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.