Panic attacks are terrifying! Suddenly and sometimes seemingly out of the blue, your heart starts to pound, you are short of breath, and you may be trembling, sweating, nauseous, dizzy, or feeling chest pains. This is a frightening experience of losing control and you may even think that you are dying. In fact, it is common for people to go to the emergency department during their first panic attack. Panic attacks fortunately are not near death experiences but rather are moments of extremely high anxiety caused by overwhelming amounts of stress. This stress can be a sudden, highly stressful event but more commonly result from and accumulation of stress over time. Let’s look at how to manage these episodes.
First, make sure that what you are experiencing is a panic attack. A check-up with you Primary Care Doctor or Psychologist is recommended. Once you know that panic is the problem, you can get to work on learning to manage future attacks. Your first task is to figure out what your first sign of panic is. Since, you now know that you are searching for it, you should be able to identify the first symptom even though these attacks happen quickly. For example, some people feel sweaty palms first, for others, lightheadedness, chest tightness, increased sweating, or a quickened heart rate. A word of caution: these physiological symptoms occur normally in daily life (e.g. excitement, exercise, or hunger) and do not always indicate panic. Learn to know or sense the difference so that you do not become afraid of your normal body signals. Identifying the first panic symptom is an important step because this is the best moment for you to intervene in the attack.
Your goal once you recognize the first sign of an attack is to relax your body and mind to avert a full attack. First, use cognitive skills. Tell yourself that you are okay, that you are simply feeling anxious and you can relax. Take a deep breath. You are okay; remind yourself. Breathe again. Now, focus on relaxing your body. You will have to experiment to figure out which techniques work best for you as there are many options. Breathing for meditation and relaxation, visualization exercises, muscle relaxation techniques, and sensory therapy exercises are all examples. There is plenty of literature if you are unfamiliar with these techniques including self-help literature, newsletter articles of mine, or you can take a class or find a therapist to help you to develop your skills. You will find that you gravitate towards and are more adept with some of the strategies. It is important that you practice these techniques when you are not feeling panicked. Your goal is to develop relaxation skills not only for use in an emergency for a panic attack but also to manage your general level of stress and anxiety that will in turn, lessen your risk of having panic attacks.
Panic attacks are experiences that you do not have to suffer with since they can be successfully managed. Just like learning anything else that is new, it takes some practice and skill building to become proficient.