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Panic Attacks and How to Cope with Them

A panic attack can be a terrifying experience, often causing the sufferer to believe he or she is  having a heart attack and about to die. The distressing nature of the attack can compound the person’s anxiety and make the attack even more intense and long lasting. Worrying about when the unpleasant symptoms of the attack are going to end leads to increased panic. So, one of the most helpful ways to deal with a panic attack is to recognize when you are having one and understand that it is not life-threatening and will eventually subside. There are ways to minimize the symptoms and prevent future attacks, and understanding this can go a long way in reducing the feeling of panic.

Common symptoms of a panic attack include chills, sweating, numbness or tingling in the fingers and/or hands, weakness, dizziness or fainting. During an attack, a person may experience a racing heart, hot flashes, difficulty breathing, chest pain or tightness, abdominal cramps and headaches. Feelings of terror, danger, doom and loss of control are also common. Symptoms tend to peak within a few minutes of the onset of the attack.  Some people are more prone to attacks than others based on their genetics or because they are more sensitive to stress. Attacks are twice as common in women and tend to start in the late teen years.   Sometimes they are a rare occurrence, while others experience them frequently.

The first step in addressing a panic attack is to get a complete physical exam to ensure that this is in fact a panic attack and rule out any serious medical issues. Panic symptoms are often very similar to those of medical conditions, so you want to be sure you are in fact experiencing a panic attack. Equally important is following the physician’s advice and adhering to any follow up appointments. The physician can also assess any medications you are currently taking to determine if they may be contributing to the symptoms or causing anxiety.

Lifestyle and diet can also play a role. For some people, caffeine and sugar can contribute to anxiety. Likewise, your doctor can determine if deficiencies of vitamins or minerals, such as magnesium and B-12, are a concern. Lack of sleep can also make a person more susceptible to panic attacks. Regular exercise has also been shown to decrease anxiety, which can lower incidence of panic attacks.

Panic attacks often seem to come out of the blue. In fact, they are caused by anxiety, which steadily builds up over time. It can be helpful to think of a drinking glass which gets filled up with a splash of water each time we experience stress or anxiety. We may not even really notice some of these stressors, but little by little, the glass keeps filling up. Finally, the water reaches the top and overflows over the side of the glass. Likewise, a panic attack occurs when our brain circuitry gets overloaded with stress and anxiety which has been building up.

Once you have been diagnosed with a panic disorder, there are a variety of ways to address this. Getting your breathing under control can help control or shorten panic symptoms. You can also create a playlist of songs which you find calming and which slow down your heart and breathing rates. One song, which was developed by sound therapists and has proven helpful to many anxiety and panic attack sufferers, is “Weightless” by Marconi Union. Select some favorite songs, which work for you.

Distracting yourself by keeping busy or engaging in soothing or low-demand activities can often help. Regular yoga practice can help reduce stress, which can in turn reduce the incidence or panic attacks. Simple, restorative yoga postures like Child’s Pose can also be calming for a person experiencing a panic attack. Of course, depending on where you are, it may not be feasible to do yoga. In such instances, some people find it calming to visualize themselves doing a yoga exercise.

Adult coloring is also another option to distract and calm yourself. If you don’t have coloring supplies handy, you can do this using a coloring app such as Colorfy. Another option is rereading a book or poem you are very familiar with. A phrase you repeat to yourself over-and-over can also be a useful strategy. Some positive self-affirming messages include: “I can handle this,”  “I will come back from this,” or “this won’t kill me.” Counting or saying the alphabet backwards can also help.

The practice of mindfulness is also effective way for managing panic attacks. Panic attacks are often exacerbated by fears about whether they will ever end, how long they will last, and when the next one will come. The idea of mindfulness is to focus on the here and now. Just get through this minute and when you’ve done that get through the next one. You can survive this moment.    Don’t worry about what comes next or what has gone on before. This can often be accomplished by doing something to bring yourself into the present, like feeling an article of your clothes or a piece of jewelry or by an exercise such as identifying three things you can see, two things you can hear and one thing you can feel.

Some people benefit from psychotherapy to alleviate their panic symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one treatment modality which has been proven effective. Joining a support group can also be beneficial. You can locate one through the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Calling a family member or trusted friend can also help, bearing in mind that not everyone is going to be available at the exact moment an attack strikes. So a backup plan is always advisable. Spending time with pets can be soothing and specially trained therapy animals can be beneficial.

Some people find medication, alone or in combinations with other approaches, helpful to address their panic symptoms. Schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist for a medical evaluation to explore options. If you have medical insurance, call the number on the back of your insurance card to find a provider in your network. You can also search Mental Health America’s interactive Where to get help tool.

If you are in recovery for an addiction problem, it’s important to share that information with your doctor. Physicians may prescribe benzodiazepines such as Klonipin, Xanax or Ativan for anxiety sufferers. Because these can be habit forming, they are not a good option for someone with a history of problem drug or alcohol use. It is also very important not to drink alcohol or use drugs while taking medication as it can block the effects of the medication or cause a dangerous interaction. Likewise, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol can worsen panic symptoms and cause other long-term mental and physical problems. Some psychiatric medications take several weeks to build up in your system and produce the desired effect, so you may not feel immediate relief.

Panic attacks can be treated and often eliminated. It may take some trial and error to find the approach which works for you. Keep in mind that the solution may involve a combination of approaches and strategies.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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Author Bio: Debbie Shepard JD, LCSW, RDDP is the Program Director for Catholic Charities’ substance abuse treatment program in Chicago. Her previous experience includes managing the outpatient clinic at the Salvation Army’s Chicago substance abuse treatment program and working in psychiatric hospitals and an emergency department. Prior to getting her MSW degree from Loyola School of Social Work, she worked as an attorney in legal aid and at the juvenile court.


Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.

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