Panic attacks (AKA anxiety attacks) are extraordinarily common. And they can be extremely disabling to the person experiencing them.
When you are having a panic attack, you often feel you are in serious danger, that you are going to die, have a heart attack, are going crazy, or are losing control in some way. Obviously, this isn’t true, but convincing yourself of that fact while you are having a panic attack can seem nearly impossible.
One of the difficulties with panic attacks is that we reinforce their power every time we have one. When we have a panic attack, instead of training ourselves to sit through it and remain as calm as possible (easier said than done, I know), as the name implies, we panic. This only further convinces our brain that anxiety attacks are something to be afraid of, something dangerous to us. And so the cycle continues...
Panic attacks make you feel like you want to run away (it triggers the fight-or-flight response in our brains). Some have described this feeling as a desire to jump out of their skin. We tell ourselves that if we can just get away somehow, we will escape this feeling. In the long-term, giving in to this feeling will do little to help us overcome panic attacks for good.
What I am going to suggest might sound counterintuitive to some of you. You may even fear that it will make your symptoms worse. But in the long run, this method has proven effective for countless people who used to suffer from frequent severe anxiety attacks.
1. Stay put and label the anxiety
Instead of giving in to the feeling of needing to escape somehow, calmly remind yourself that you aren’t in danger and that you aren’t going crazy. Tell yourself “this is anxiety” or “this is a panic attack.” This helps to activate the prefrontal cortex of your brain, which helps regulate emotions. Then state to yourself that you choose not to identify with this emotion, or to give any meaning to it. You won’t assume any of the scary thoughts it tries to throw at you are true. Remind yourself that they are only thoughts brought on by the anxiety.
If you were sitting down somewhere when the panic attack started, don’t give in to the urge to run away. Remember that this doesn’t help you any more than anything else does. Tell yourself that you can leave whenever you want, you have that freedom. But that you are choosing to, instead, face the panic attack and not give in to it. You are choosing to sit with it for the time being.
2. Don’t fight it, feel it
Next, simply notice the feeling. Notice where all you feel it in your body, and what it feels like . . . Accept that this feeling is temporary. Remember, it may feel like it is going to get much worse, but the truth is that this is the pinnacle, a bad panic attack is as bad as your anxiety will get. And you have been through it before, so you know what to expect. Don’t try to stop the panic, but just allow yourself to feel it while it lasts. Don't fight it. Just feel it.
3. Describe it
Now that you are noticing the different temporary sensations and symptoms that the panic causes, notice them and try to put them into words. Describe them to yourself, reporting simply as an observer. Report whether your heart is beating fast, or your belly is filled with butterflies. Describe the thoughts you are having as well as the thoughts you had before the anxiety began. Be as objective as you can. Some people find this easier to write on paper, as seeing it all this way makes it easier not to identify with their thoughts or feelings at the moment. Remember that thoughts are only thoughts, and feelings are only feelings. Both are temporary and neither of them accurately reflects reality.
4. Change your perspective on panic
The goal of this 4-part technique is not to stop the panic attack. Eventually, the panic attack will end no matter what. It always does. The goal is to slowly desensitize yourself to panic attacks. Little by little you are training your brain to know that there is nothing to be afraid of. Using this technique consistently, over time you may be surprised to find your panic attacks happening less and less frequently, and eventually, not happening at all.
That leads us to the 4th step. Changing your perspective on panic attacks.
You want to start seeing panic attacks, not as something undesirable (even though they are unpleasant), but as practice opportunities. The more practice sessions you have under your belt, the closer you are to your goal of not having to be inconvenienced by panic attacks anymore. Tell yourself “Oh, an anxiety attack. Another opportunity to practice!”
You may even slowly stop trying to avoid places or things that tend to trigger panic attacks for you, simply so you might get some extra practice in. That is okay. However, it is good to take this slowly. Don’t overwhelm yourself with too much right away. And be patient. Results will come.
Quick calm downs:
As a bonus, here are two techniques many have found useful if they need to relax because of an anxiety attack.
This is a wonderful practice that I would suggest to anyone, whether or not they suffer from panic attacks. It involves breathing slowly and deeply into and out of your diaphragm. You want to relax as best you can and breathe as smoothly as possible. Begin counting with 6 full seconds in, and 6 full seconds out. Continue this for several minutes. Or for as long as you feel you need to.
Ice pack method
Here is another quick method to relieve anxiety. As the name suggests, it involves the use of an ice pack.
Take an ice pack and place it up against your face. (Give yourself an opening to breathe, of course) And begin diaphragmatic breathing. This is effective because the cold sensation on your face helps to stimulate the Vagus nerve and trigger the “relaxation response.” Some people find that placing an ice pack anywhere on their body is enough to distract them and help them calm down from a panic attack. You may find it best to experiment and use what works best for you.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2022 Jackie Jones