How to Handle Panic Attacks

Author:  Stephanie Camins – MA, LPC  

verified by Psychology Today

How do I manage panic attacks?

Every one of us suffers through anxiety at different times, but a full-blown panic attack can be the most severe experience of anxiety. Panic attacks are something many of us will face at some time in our life, and it can be crippling!  “How to control anxiety?” If this has become the main focus of your life, its time to take charge.   Endless searching for ways to manage your anxiety does not need to invade your time and take your energy.

There are several methods used by experts to manage panic attacks.  Anxiety management techniques can be learned and phenomenal results can be achieved fixing the problem and even eliminating panic attacks entirely. Methods which I will teach you today include the  “AWARE” method, breathing techniques,

Controlling Panic

AWARE is a signifier that means;

  • Accept and Acknowledge – Accept that you are suffering from an attack and don’t make efforts to fight back. Rather, you recognize it and “Deal with it” just like any emotion that comes up in your day.  Matter of fact think to yourself, I am having anxiety right now but it will pass.  I am OK and can take care of myself.
  • Wait and watch the improvement as you mindfully stay in the present reminding yourself that you are in control.
  • Actions for making the situation easy and comfortable – Take deep breaths, inhaling for 7 seconds, holding for 2 seconds and exhaling for another 7 seconds.  Repeat this while focusing on your surroundings identifying what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell.  This allows you to focus only on the present moment.  Find distractions that engage your mind and body such as taking a walk and focusing on the flowers, plants, and trees you observe or stretching while you take deep breaths using essential oils.
  • Repeat – Continue to use relaxation exercises until the anxiety subsides.  It may take some time for the adrenaline, neurotransmitters, and hormones that were released into your system to dissipate.
  • End – Resume what you were doing prior to the panic attack recognizing that you are in control of your emotions

Panic attacks are scary. It can feel like you are having a heart attack, going crazy, or losing control.  You may worry that you are going to pass out or throw up.  Your legs feel shaky, you can’t catch your breath, your heart is pounding and people will surely think you’ve lost your mind.

You start having anxiety about having a panic attack!  Anxiety about anxiety!  This reaction stimulates more adrenaline and chemical output which increases all the physical symptoms of anxiety.  You now find yourself in a loop in which you are catastrophizing the physical symptoms you are experiencing with dire thoughts.  Fear about panic elicits more panic.

For this reason, fighting panic and anxiety is not in your best interest.  Admitting and accepting that you are having a panic attack while distracting and using relaxation techniques will allow your anxiety to complete its course far more quickly.  Once you have disconnected your fear of the anxiety and the physical indicators of panic attacks, controlling anxiety becomes more natural, and you will begin to observe it not happening less frequently and passing more quickly.

Breathing Techniques to Reduce Anxiety

Breathing exercises are an important way to increase your mental strength and stay calm under pressure.  Learning to control your breathing will help you right away to significantly reduce your fight or flight stress response. Let’s consider some breathing strategies anybody can use.

Equal breathing

This technique, originating from yoga practices,  suggests breathing in and out of your nose. Doing this allows you to sustain your breath for an equal proportion of time on the inwards and outwards breaths. You can start by breathing in for 5 seconds and breathing out for 5 seconds. This helps you evacuate your lungs and fill them up with fresh oxygen. Additionally, deep and slow breathing permits a person to trigger the “rest & digest” condition which opposes our “fight or flight” response. This is the best way to avoid a panic response.

Breathe from the stomach

This is another handy technique that involves breathing from the stomach or diaphragm. Lie on your back, put a hand on your chest and a hand on your belly.  Take a deep breath and notice if the hand on your chest or the hand on your belly rises and falls. Under times of high anxiety, you will notice that the hand on your chest is the one moving.  When this happens we are limiting the quantity of oxygen you circulate with every breath.  This shallow breathing can provoke stress by leading to physical symptoms such as feeling faint or shaky. Rather, breathe by permitting your abdomen to enlarge.  This will permit your diaphragm to expand, opening the lungs.

Power Positions

Power positions have been shown in studies to activate the production of stress-fighting hormones and other positive hormones like testosterone. One pose is called “victory pose” in which a person stands straight with the arms up in a V-shaped position as if somebody has won a contest. You will notice feeling more driven and more confident.

Anti-anxiety Medication

If you struggle with panic attacks daily or find yourself obsessed with some fear, then anti-anxiety medicines (anxiolytics) may be helpful. These medications combat both the physiological and psychological symptoms caused by panic attacks. But how exactly do they work? And do they come with no side effects?

All of the anxiolytics function by shifting the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that are linked with anxiety or stress. Stress is induced by “fight or flight” reaction, which is a natural reaction of our body whenever it senses any danger. When a person feels some threat, our body releases cortisol, adrenaline, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

This influx causes a rise in heartbeat, dilation of blood vessels, pupils and even enhanced blood viscosity. Your muscles get stiffer and harder, and you become more watchful and snappy. Anxiolytics function by enhancing the quantity of the chemical, gamma-aminobutyric acid or “GABA,” which is a repressive neurotransmitter.  GABA reduces the impact of the stress chemicals allowing you to feel less anxiousness

Other anxiolytics function by influencing serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that induces the “feel happy” sense in us. It is the chemical in our brain that helps us feel calm, cheerful and happy. An increased quantity of this transmitter eliminates the feeling of dread, stress, depression or anxiety.

Your doctor or physician can answer any questions about the appropriateness of medications for you. Your doctor will review the potential side effects and benefits of these medications.

Though anxiolytics may reduce panic attacks in the short term, it’s crucial to use other ways to handle the problem in the long term. Managing anxiety with pharmaceuticals will stop the physical response but will not solve the underlying problem.  Using therapy to learn strategies will teach you to manage your stress and anxiety to eliminate the thought patterns which exacerbate panic and anxiety.  Strategies such as CBT, EMDR, and hypnosis will show you how to control your emotions and eliminate panic.

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