Experiencing a panic attack can be extremely frightening and leave negative emotions for a long time, even after it has passed. Unfortunately, nowadays, with the higher stress levels we are exposed to, they are more common than ever. There are many people for whom panic attacks occur more frequently and even lead to a panic disorder. This happens when a person feels constant fear of receiving another panic attack and consciously tries to avoid certain places, tasks, or situations they associate with stress.
I want to note that I am not a specialist in this field, and everything stated in this article is based on my personal experience of coping with panic attacks. If needed, it is always advisory to seek professional medical help. However, this topic is really close to me and makes me feel emotional, so I really wanted to share my experience and maybe help someone who is or has been in such a situation.
What is a Panic Attack?
So for those of you who have never experienced a panic attack, let me start by explaining what it is and how it feels. A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that usually occurs without any warning and triggers severe physical reactions. Even though there is no real health danger associated with them, panic attacks are intensely uncomfortable as they make you feel as if you're losing control, going crazy, or even dying. It can happen to you in any given situation, when chilling with friends, when you are in a meeting, while grocery shopping, or even while driving, which can be extremely dangerous. This is honestly one of the worst feelings I have had in my entire life. The first couple of times this has happened to me, I felt helpless to do anything and simply feared what might happen next. However, with time I have learned how to recognize them as well as some techniques on how to cope with them, and now, I feel much more calm and even confident enough to talk about this.
As mentioned, panic attacks usually have no specific trigger, which makes it difficult to understand why they occur. Even though it is not clear what causes them, some factors play a role, such as stress, negative thoughts, emotional trauma, or simply past family history with similar disorders.
The first and most important thing to do if you are ever in this situation is to realize that this is just a panic attack and you are not in real danger. How to do that? The most common symptoms to look for are shortness of breath and chest pain. This is also why many people confuse it with a heart attack, which causes even more fear. Other symptoms are a racing heartbeat, trembling or shaking, hot or cold flashes, sweating, and a feeling of dizziness. The duration of a panic attack differs; however, it usually reaches its peak within a couple of minutes and then slowly starts to fade away. Contrary to a heart attack which would worsen with time. Also keep in mind that even after the attack, you can still experience muscle pain and feel worn out.
Once you have realized that you’re having a panic attack, everything gets easier. Simply learning and educating ourselves on panic and anxiety can help a lot with distress relief. This will help to recognize it on time and embrace the fact that emotions are normal and you’re not going crazy. Then, we need to focus on our breathing, and there are numerous techniques to use. For example, hyperventilating, or starting to breathe rapidly trying to get more oxygen, is not a good thing to do as it causes a feeling of tightness of the chest. Deep breaths of fresh air, on the other hand, are proven to relieve the symptoms of panic and calm the mind and body. Practicing yoga or meditation can teach you how to control your breath effectively.
Another common feeling that I usually get during panic attacks is derealisation or depersonalization. This feeling is characterized by disconnecting from yourself and/or the surrounding environment. What does this mean? You see surroundings as distorted, foggy, or unfamiliar and they will feel unnatural, as if you are not really there. Luckily, I have found the perfect technique to cope with this feeling that helps your mind to connect again to the surrounding environment and understand the situation you’re in clearly. It is called The 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique and what you need to do is focus on your senses to bring yourself back to reality. You start by acknowledging 5 things that you see around you. Then, think about your arms, legs, and fingertips, and name 4 things you can feel. Next to that, you have to think of 3 things you hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing that you can taste. After completing the cycle, your mind will not only be in balance with the external surroundings but will also be calm and not focused on your negative emotions.
Lastly, something that I have recently realized is that even though this is something that you have to go through, you don’t have to do it alone. I started calling friends, family, and people I love. Being isolated only worsens symptoms of fear and anxiety. Once you feel like things are getting out of control, call someone and talk to them about how you feel. I try to move my focus from my anxiety to what they’re saying, which always calms me down. By hearing the voice of the ones you love, you can already feel relief and peace.
Everyday Practices for a Healthier Mind
You shouldn’t only take action once the panic attack occurs. There are many things we do in our day-to-day life that increase our stress levels more than we realize. For example, smoking, drinking alcohol, and caffeine are some of the main things that can influence panic attacks. In moderate amounts coffee can be healthy, however, the more caffeine you put in your body, the more you increase anxiety. I am currently sticking to a maximum of one coffee per day, and the way it has influenced my mental health is unbelievable. Needless to say, drinking enough water and eating healthy is a must. This combined with regular exercises is a natural stress reliever. The saying goes “Strong body – Strong mind”, and it is completely true. If you’re not a sports fan, try at least taking daily walks and dancing to your favourite music at home. And last but not least, enough restful sleep is as equally important for your mental health as food and exercise. Having seven to nine hours of good sleep every night reduces stress levels and helps to cope with panic attacks and anxiety.
To conclude, panic attacks are extremely unpleasant and frightening, but they are not dangerous! It is crucial to understand this fact and embrace emotions, in order to not let the panic win. However, if you struggle with stress and regular panic attacks symptoms, never be afraid to ask for medical help! Such situations are very hard to manage on your own, but it only gets better once you realize that you are stronger than them.