Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear and anxiety that overwhelm the mind and body. The symptoms associated with panic attacks often mimic the symptoms of serious medical problems, most commonly heart attacks.
Yet panic attacks are a mental health problem, not necessarily medical. They are triggered by the mind and are affected by thoughts. The symptoms of panic attacks are often very physical, but the cause of them is entirely mental.
Still, regardless of panic attacks being caused almost exclusively by one’s mental health, they can feel so severe that many people end up calling an ambulance or feel as though they are about to die, especially during the first panic attack. Whether or not a person suffering from panic is hospitalized, many tend to experience severe health anxiety, agoraphobia, and/or a general (and intense) dread on a daily basis.
Because of the difficult side effects of panic attacks, and the impact they can have on one’s life, many search for ways to manage and/or rid themselves of panic attacks fast.
Committing to a Long Term Panic Attack Treatment
Learning to manage and decrease panic attacks is a process, and will not happen overnight. Anxiety and panic are something that your brain has learned, which, essentially, needs to be unlearned. And while anxiety and panic, with the right skills, can be significantly decreased, most may still have occasional setbacks. This is because there is not an identified “cure” for anxiety and the associated panic attacks.
While there are many different approaches to managing and decreasing panic attacks, there are some commonly used approaches to begin with.
NOTE: These tips aren't necessarily going to stop your panic attacks right away. But if you learn not to fear them as much and allow yourself to think about them openly, they may reduce the severity of frequency.
Step 1: Accepting the Attack
In life, we often have to accept things we don’t like, or things that are out of our control. If you suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, these are things that likely fall into that category. And while acceptance is a huge step in beginning to manage and decrease anxiety and panic, it can also be extremely hard.
Acceptance allows us to see reality for what it is (i.e. “I suffer from anxiety.”), and stop fighting and/or denying that reality. Acceptance also demonstrates one’s willingness to work towards feeling better, and no longer letting the anxiety and panic have such a control over his or her life.
Acceptance is also a step towards decreasing the avoidance that is an inherent symptom of anxiety and panic. It is common for people who experience panic attacks to avoid certain things/people/situations/events. This is often an attempt to steer clear of panic attack “triggers.”
Yet avoidance is an ineffective tactic in that avoiding certain locations or activities actually reinforce the idea that a panic attack is warranted in those areas. So, instead of avoiding, it is important to face one’s fears with a sense of acceptance that a panic attack could occur.
Step 2: Avoiding Thought Suppression
Another aspect of one’s willingness to get better is being open to talk about the panic and the associated thoughts. This idea is based on the ineffectiveness of the principle of thought suppression, which encourages people not to think about a specific object or event.
Studies have shown when people were asked to stop thinking about a specific thing, they actually ended up thinking about that very thing even more. For example, if one group was asked to “stop thinking of a red ball” and another group was asked to “think about a red ball,” the one asked to stop would be more likely to think about it. Panic attacks can work the same way.
Thus, not trying to suppress the thoughts about the panic-inducing thing, and instead speaking openly about it, can be helpful in decreasing the intensity of the panic associated with the specific trigger.
It is unclear why thought suppression is so ineffective, but some believe it is likely the brain attempting to actively “remember” the trigger, as a way to actually remind the person to forget it. It is also possible that trying to force thoughts away increases mental stress, and an increase in mental stress (and therefore anxiety) often causes people about whatever the stress trigger is.
Regardless, knowing the ineffectiveness of thought suppression (i.e. - trying to fight the attack) can be useful when working to manage one’s panic attacks. At the onset of an attack, using acceptance and willingness to move through it, and allowing the thoughts to flow freely, can all be helpful. Additionally, if the panic attack is in the presence of another person, know it is okay to be open about what is happening.
Step 3: Relearn Breathing
While many believe anxiety and stress are the main contributors to the development of panic attacks, it is actually the way a person’s breathing pattern changes (during times of anxiety and stress) that brings about panic attacks. Most people with panic attacks suffer from hyperventilation. Hyperventilation is a type of fast breathing (although it may be deeper breaths, not necessarily faster breaths) where too much carbon dioxide is expelled. It also causes the sufferer to feel as though he or she is not getting enough air, which causes many to try to breathe in more oxygen and ultimately, hyperventilate further.
Hyperventilation causes a host of symptoms that tend to complicate panic attacks. These include:
- Chest pains
- Rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
- Tingling in the extremities.
While adrenaline released during an anxiety attack contributes to some of those as well, it is primarily hyperventilation that appears to have the strongest effect.
To begin to combat the intensity of panic attacks, learning to control one’s breathing patterns is a good place to start. Fight the urge to take faster deep breaths than your body allows or expand your chest (many people try to force a yawn, and panic more when they cannot - since breathing in more oxygen is not helpful).
Instead, take very slow, controlled breaths. Try to breathe in for 5 to 6 seconds, hold for 2 to 3 seconds, then breathe out for 7 to 9 seconds. This can help the body regain the necessary carbon dioxide. And while it may not stop the panic attack completely, it will likely decrease its severity.
Step 4: Healthy Living
Healthy living is an encouraged intervention for many mental health disorders, including anxiety and panic. Although living a healthy lifestyle may seem like an obvious approach to managing symptoms, many struggle to actually make the necessary changes to reflect this healthier lifestyle.
Nonetheless, for those with anxiety and panic attacks, healthy living is extremely important. There are a variety of things a person can do to start to make changes towards living a healthier life:
- Sleep - Getting adequate sleep is vital to managing anxiety and panic. Long-term sleep deprivation can increase the likelihood of stress and anxiety.
- Hydration - Drinking enough water not only promotes good physical health, but also mental health. Especially in the case of panic attacks, which can cause a lot of sweating, ensuring hydration is important.
- Healthy Eating - Nutrition can have a tremendous effect on anxiety, and depending on one’s diet, it can either exacerbate or decrease symptoms.
- Exercise - One of the most valuable mental health tools available, exercise has been shown to be as effective as some anti-anxiety medications in terms of managing difficult symptoms.
Step 5: Replacement Coping Tools/Distractions
Learning ways to manage breathing and incorporating things that promote a healthier lifestyle are effective ways to treat anxiety and panic. Still, there are other tools and skills that some might find helpful. Learning certain tools and skills can provide a healthier approach to managing the stress that contributes to anxiety and panic. These tools fall into two categories of stress coping:
- Activities used to possibly promote relaxation and/or happiness.
- Distractions to provide the mind space from overthinking and time to recover from anxiety.
What many do not realize is that healthy approaches to coping with stress are truly a learned mental skill. This means over time, with consistency, the brain can essentially be “retrained.” This is why distractions (which may not seem like a healthy way to cope) are actually so valuable. Staying busy with friends or doing fun activities distract the mind so that a person is less focused on the stress he or she is experiencing.
Similarly, the activities a person may use to cope with the anxiety and stress coping are not as important as some may think, as long as they are “healthy” (i.e. not drugs or alcohol) and do not induce additional stress/anxiety. Some people turn to comedy television, as opposed to dramas, reality shows, horror films, and even some documentaries.
A Slow Process - Much To Do
Of course, the above-mentioned suggestions are considered a start to managing anxiety and panic. While they are a great place to start, if you notice your panic attacks persist, it may be important to seek professional intervention and be assessed by a mental health professional.