Feeling out of Control
I talk to clients every week who struggle with panic attacks and they can range from a feeling of breathlessness to absolute paralysis.
Panic attacks can happen as a one off, perhaps the result of a stressful life event or an unusually worrying time or they can happen more frequently triggered by your brains reaction to anxiety.
According to the NHS website, common physical panic attack symptoms are:- faster, more noticeable heartbeat, dizziness, headache, chest pains, sweating, breathlessness, shaking…
This is a scary list and its unsurprising that when all, or a few of these symptoms appear together it can feel terrifying, as if there is something seriously, life threateningly wrong with you.
But these symptoms will pass, maybe in a few minutes maybe longer.
A Word about Distraction
Clients often talk about distraction and trying to beat or avoid these episodes by keeping busy and thinking about other things. It’s a great short term solution but it means your brain is constantly on the run and trying to fool itself into thinking there is nothing going on, so you never feel comfortable or relaxed.
Real life starts to be seen as a distraction from your darker thoughts and you can miss out on the joy of living in the moment. Let’s flip it, the aim is you leading a full and happy life as the norm, with occasional moments of worry.
If distraction isn’t the best tactic to cope with panic attacks then what might make a difference?
Dealing with an attack
1) Bring it on, anxiety do your worst!
If possible stand firm, recognise the attack, even greet it out loud. Confront your fear, you are giving yourself a chance to learn that nothing’s going to happen. Understand that these feelings are your body’s alarm system doing its job when it doesn’t need to. Remind yourself that you are safe and have gone into Fight or Flight mode unnecessarily.
And it will pass.
2) In two three four, out two three four
The way you breath during a panic attack can make the symptoms worse, fast shallow breathing can cause you to feel short of breath, dizzy and disorientated.
Learn to slow your breathing down. Breathe in deeply and slowly while counting to five and out again deeply and slowly counting to five. The outward breath helps to slow your heartbeat. Practice this when you aren’t anxious, it can relax you and can become second nature and really help when you feel the anxiety building. I use this technique before giving presentations and find it really useful.
3) No one’s looking at your pants.
Swap out negative thoughts for positives. Use statements to remind yourself that the panic is not dangerous or harmful. Here are a couple of examples but its best to have a couple of your own up your sleeve.
‘This will pass, it will not last forever’
‘It’s happened before and I survived and coped’
‘I am safe and don’t need to escape or leave’
Remind yourself of these things at the first sign of any symptoms and you can teach your brain to head off the attack. Remember the people around you are probably oblivious to how you are feeling so don’t worry about what they may think. When I was a kid my mum used to get us to try clothes on without the bother of a changing room and I’d feel really shy. I saw a comedian say the same thing and his mum used to say ‘don’t worry, no one’s looking at your pants’ and to this day it makes me laugh. Try that next time you feel self-conscious.
4) A Friend’s smiling face
Try to focus on something other than the negative thoughts in your brain, something that you can see or hear. Your friend’s smiling face, a great tune on the radio, the sun on your skin. This is called grounding and is a great technique to calm a troubled mind.
If this isn’t possible then think of something that relaxes you and focus your attention on that. Maybe have a picture of a pet on your phone, your home, or a favourite friend or relative.
5) Scrat chasing an Acorn
Obviously a lot of negative thoughts surface during a panic attack. Challenge them as they surface as many are not true. Don’t believe everything you think!
Maybe use humour to dispel these thoughts – scared of heights? Think about a cartoon situation that focuses on heights, Wiley E Coyote from Road runner falling off a cliff, or Scrat from Ice Age chasing his acorn over a precipice. Imagine yourself in that cartoon and teach your brain how ridiculous and untrue the negative thoughts are. These situations are never going to happen!
Being aware of these unhelpful thought patterns helps you to recognise them before they are out of control, adding humour helps you to laugh at the situation, it’s very hard to laugh and panic at the same time.
Keeping a note of what happens each time you panic can help you to spot patterns in what triggers these experiences for you, not for future avoidance but so that you can prepare. Take a friend maybe or give yourself extra time for the journey. It also reminds you that you survived even when it felt like you wouldn’t.
Stress can cause panic attacks so maybe look at your work load, speak to a manager and ask for support. What can you delegate, can you take a break? Have you taken on too much in your personal life, are you overloaded? Sometimes there is nothing we can do about this but if we can ask for help with simple tasks it does leave us free for the other, more difficult things. Could someone else make the beds today, or go to the shops etc. Look at what you have on your plate and if you aren’t coping think about changes that could be made.
Regular exercise helps but try to make it something you enjoy. It’s no good promising to do a marathon if you hate running. Personally I love to swim and sometimes just bobbing about in water can lift my mood. Or dancing if a great song comes on the radio, get the whole family involved. A short walk around your neighbourhood gives you fresh air, space to think and maybe calm down and its exercise too. Don’t underestimate the power of a stroll.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking as these can all make panic attacks worse. Many of my clients have said that a few drinks relaxes them but if you suffer with hangover dread and gloom the next day then maybe cut the number of drinks. Give yourself a limit or switch every other one out for a non-alcoholic option. Your brain and body will thank you in the morning.
And lastly consider therapy, talking to a professional can really help you get to the bottom of the anxiety. There is no quick fix or cure but making small changes can help a lot and being willing to try different approaches until you find one that helps is also a great attitude to have.
I hope this has helped, some practical ideas to get you through those difficult moments
We’d love to hear what works for you so please message us and let us know
Until next time,
I did a fair bit of reading for this blog and my sources are as follows
Mind. 2021. What is a Panic Attack. [online] Available at: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/anxiety-and-panic-attacks/panic-attacks/. [accessed 13 March 2021]
Priory Group. 2021. 5 top tips for coping with panic attacks. [online] Available at: https://www.priorygroup.com/blog/5-top-tips-for-coping-with-panic-attacks [Accessed 13 March 2021]
NHS. 2019. Anxiety Fear and Panic. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/feelings-symptoms-behaviours/feelings-and-symptoms/anxiety-fear-panic/ [accessed 13 march 2021]
And all the friends and clients who have spoken to me and allowed me to share their experiences.