By: Nelson Lee
*The content in this piece was reviewed and approved by Jenny Howe, Mental Health Counselor and Owner at Jenny Howe Consulting.*
Panic attacks can be frightening experiences—those of you who’ve had them will surely agree. Even a look at the symptoms is enough to give someone chills (literally).
According to the Mayo Clinic, here are some of the common symptoms of a panic attack:
- Sense of impending doom or danger
- Fear of loss of control or death
- Rapid, pounding heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
- Hot flashes
- Abdominal cramping
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness
- Numbness or tingling sensation
- Feeling of unreality or detachment
As terrifying as the symptoms may be, it’s important to recognize that panic attacks themselves do not pose a threat to your physical well-being, and they are actually pretty common experiences for many individuals. With that being said, there is no question that panic attacks are extremely unpleasant.
Luckily, there are ways to lessen the blow of a panic attack in the present moment and mitigate them moving forward.
Here are 6 strategies to help you deal with panic attacks:
1. Understand what a panic attack really is
Panic attacks are the process of your body entering the fight or flight response, which is essentially your nervous system reacting to what it believes to be a threat. This is the same process our ancestors experienced when they were confronted by dangerous animals out in the wild.
We may not regularly deal with the dangers of wild animals today, but those protective human systems are still present within each of us. And now those systems react to 21st century threats, like stress around finances, relationships, work, and more.
Sometimes a panic attack can be triggered by a specific fear or stressor—like those mentioned above—and sometimes they can come as a random malfunction in our nervous system. Either way, it’s important to recognize what a panic attack is so you can work through it without letting fear get the best of you.
2. Embrace the panic attack—or at least stop resisting it
Terrifying, I know. But a big driver of what makes a current panic attack worse and what makes ongoing panic attacks more likely is an increase in fear and resistance around having a panic attack. When you change your relationship with panic attacks—by becoming more welcoming to them—they are much more likely to lessen in intensity as well as frequency.
This is one of those skills that is easy in theory but tough in practice, and is obviously something that may not be applicable when you’re blindsided by your first panic attack. But once you’ve had a panic attack or two and can recognize them coming on, it’s something you can practice and get better at.
Another key component of this is refraining from avoiding situations or locations that have triggered panic attacks previously. Avoidance only stokes the fear of a panic attack under those avoided circumstances and makes a panic attack more likely to happen if you find yourself in those circumstances again. Plus, living in fear is no way to live.
3. Trust yourself
Panic attacks come with a great deal of fear and uncertainty. To help you stop resisting panic attacks and create a better relationship with them, you can work on embracing the uncertainty surrounding a panic attack you’re having in the present moment as well as potential panic attacks you may have in the future.
A core element of this is that you want to cultivate a mindset of trusting yourself to handle whatever situation you encounter in the future—no matter how uncertain that situation may be—whether it’s 30 seconds from now or 30 years from now. Know that you are capable of handling panic attacks and all sorts of uncertain experiences that can bring discomfort.
When you trust yourself to handle the future, you allow yourself to let go of future concerns and come back fully to the present. Continually living in the present will help you avoid the spirals of worry that can eventually lead to panic attacks, and it will give you the confidence to face future panic attacks at any given time or place.
4. Remember that emotions are temporary
Remind yourself that no emotion lasts forever. No matter how uncomfortable a panic attack is, know that it will pass.
You may find it helpful to envision the emotions you experience with a panic attack as waves that come and will eventually go. With that in your mind, you can be fully present with the emotions you experience while they’re there. Since you can’t escape the waves, you might as well ride them.
5. Practice mindfulness—before you need it
Mindfulness can be an invaluable tool for working through anxiety and panic. It helps you accept and be present with worrisome thoughts, perceived threats, and uncomfortable emotions without being swept up by them. Using mindfulness to consistently engage in this acceptance and presence teaches your nervous system not to react so strongly to those distressing thoughts, threats, and feelings, which eventually lessens anxiety and worry.
But the thing is, if you only engage in mindfulness when you feel a panic attack coming on, the tool likely won’t be so useful. In fact, it might just cause more frustration, as trying to bring yourself into the present during a time of intense worry will be exceptionally challenging if you haven’t practiced previously—a little bit like trying to run a marathon without any training.
What will be more helpful is engaging in a consistent (preferably daily) mindfulness practice that allows you to stay present and work on acceptance on an ongoing basis. That way, when you are confronted with worries or other mental distress that could lead to a panic attack, you’re already prepped and ready to go with your mindfulness tool, which will help you effectively come back to the present, where you’re best able to navigate whatever comes your way.
6. Get help if you need it
There’s no shame in needing help. If you feel that your panic attacks are worsening or that you’re living with extensive anxiety or worry due to panic attacks, don’t hesitate to contact a medical or mental health professional.
Professionals help people with panic attacks on a regular basis, and you can certainly improve with the right interventions. Know that getting better is possible, so don’t let the fear of reaching out stop you from living a more enjoyable life.
*The content in this piece was reviewed and approved by Jenny Howe, Mental Health Counselor and Owner at Jenny Howe Consulting. You can find her at https://www.jennyhoweconsulting.com/.*
Disclaimer: Blunovus content is not therapy and is not designed to diagnose or treat any condition you may be experiencing. Please contact a medical or mental health professional for treatment that is specific to your needs.