If you’ve ever experienced overwhelming fear along with a sudden increase in heart rate, muscle tension and dizziness, you know that it could well be a panic attack. If you’ve never experienced one, you may not immediately be able to figure out what’s happening. When someone has their first panic attack, they sometimes think they are “losing control,” having a heart attack, or dying. Panic attacks usually come on suddenly, and it is often unclear what triggers them. Simply put, they can be scary. But if you’re able to recognize what’s going on, you can learn how to cope with them effectively.
Experts believe that panic attacks are the result of what occurs when our normal “fight or flight” response to imminent threats – fast breathing and increased heart rate – is triggered by a false alarm. In other words, panic attacks involve feeling threatened when there is no actual danger present. That’s good news, because it means that you can learn how to effectively treat your attacks.
If you think you may be having a panic attack, here’s what you can do to ease your symptoms:
Breathe When people have panic attacks, they often start breathing rapidly. This can understandably exacerbate other symptoms like muscle tension and a quickened heart rate. It’s not uncommon to fear that you will stop breathing altogether. First, understand that you will not stop breathing during a panic attack. To calm your breathing, begin by adjusting your posture so that you’re sitting straight. Start taking slow, deep breaths. Each breath should take between 5-10 seconds. When your lungs are full, try to hold the air in for one or two seconds. Then slowly exhale, pausing again for a couple seconds when your lungs are empty. Make sure to breathe from your abdomen.
Relax Your Muscles A very common panic attack symptom is muscle tension, and those who have recurring panic episodes often suffer from chronic muscle tension. Practicing muscle relaxation exercises can help you learn to reduce this. Start with your feet. Try to clench your toes tightly for about 10 seconds, then release. Focus on the sensations you feel when your muscles are clenching, contrasted with how they feel when they are relaxed. Repeat this a couple of times, then move on to another muscle group. Try doing this with your arms, abdomen, legs, and hands.
Don’t Try To Control It If you leave the situation you’re in when a panic attack comes on, you’re telling your brain that you can’t handle whatever situation is panicking you. That’s likely to lead you to fear the situation and avoid it at all costs. Try to adopt a “let it happen” attitude. Tell yourself that you are having a panic attack, and that it will pass. It may help to close your eyes and envision your panic attack as a wave you are riding to the shore of a beach: you’re in the midst of a storm, but you just have to ride the wave until you reach the calming shores, and you will eventually get there. Do not try to “fight” a panic attack. If you do, it will only last longer and your symptoms will become even more intense.
Focus On Something Outside Yourself Contact with another being or an object can be very useful in easing panic attack symptoms. Petting a dog or a cat is a great way to bring yourself down from uncomfortable physiological symptoms. The simple act of petting an animal can offset a rapid heart rate caused by panicking. Any repetitive motion can be effective at doing this. Try touching a nearby object to bring yourself back in touch with reality. Talk to someone. Describe the colors of whatever is near you, such as a chair or a wall. Focusing on outside sensations can help ground you.