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Photo courtesy of @calebthetraveler/Twenty20

I. Can’t. Breathe. What. Is. Happening. Make. It. Stop.

A flurry of disjointed, alarming thoughts enters my mind. My heart flutters. Then there’s the clamminess. The rush of adrenaline. Finally, the fight or flight kicks in. It’s here — another panic attack has me in its grip. 

As someone who deals with generalized anxiety disorder, I am no stranger to panic attacks. Sometimes there’s a trigger, and sometimes, they feel as if they come straight out of the blue. And I’m not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, panic disorder affects 6 million adults (that’s 2.7% of the U.S. population), and women are twice as likely to experience panic. 

If you’ve ever faced down a panic attack, you know it’s one of the most unpleasant feelings that exists. Some only experience the occasional panic attack, while for some, it can be a daily struggle. Either way, we can all agree that we never want to succumb to that terrifying sensation again. 

If you’re prone, there’s a good chance that unfortunately you will have another panic attack. But here’s some comfort for you — you can take away some of the panic attack’s power. And it centers on preparing ahead of time. 

The key is practice,” says Dr. Jodie Skillicorn, a holistic psychiatrist at Mindful Psychiatry. If one is not used to practicing these skills regularly, one will not think to use them during a panic attack.”

When you enter the battlefield of panic, it can help to understand the biology of panic and arrive armed with coping mechanisms.

What Sets a Panic Attack into Motion? 

Simply put, a panic attack is the brain on fire. 

Skillicorn says, A panic attack initially occurs simply when the limbic system gets a signal that there’s a threat, usually from a triggering thought or memory, which we may not even be aware of thinking. By definition, there is no imminent threat occurring at the time, so it feels like it is out of the blue,’ which makes it feel out of control and scary. Because there is no reason’ for it, and it does not make sense, our brain wants to understand the threat,’ so it gets caught up in stories: Something is wrong with me. Maybe I’m having a heart attack or something else is seriously wrong. What if it doesn’t end? What should I do?’”

All these questions and catastrophizing thoughts lead to more fear and more panic, keeping the cycle going. The breath gets shallow and tight in the chest. The heart races. These sensations and the thoughts about all the things that could be wrong send more signals to the brain that there is a threat, and you are caught in a full-blown panic attack.”

OK, It’s Happening — Now What?

When a panic attack is starting, it can feel as if there’s no way to stop it, or that will ever end. Luckily, Skillicorn has a step-by-step process for bringing down the severity of panic, methods that are best-practiced when you’re not having a panic attack so you can feel prepared. She says: 

  1. Focus on the breath in the belly. When we breathe into the belly, this acts a limbic lullaby, sending a signal to the limbic system that in this moment we are safe. There are no monsters, no threats, no tigers — just uncomfortable sensations.”
  2. Ground yourself. Notice the feel of your feet on the ground or your back in your chair. Look around and notice colors, shapes, and textures. Notice any sounds around you near and far. Notice the temperature of your skin and the air. Notice any aromas — perhaps sniff some lavender oil.”
  3. Notice your thoughts. Notice the thoughts in your head as stories, not facts. Remind yourself this is a panic attack and will pass.”
  4. Find your curiosity. Be curious about the changing sensations in the body instead of seeing them as threats.”
  5. Try EFT. Tapping with the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is another way to regulate the nervous system and calm it down. This is a simple skill that can be learned for free online.”

The Panic Attack is Over — What Should Happen Next?

After your panic attack, you’re likely feeling wrung-out and completely exhausted. This is the time to continue practicing your coping mechanisms and engage in some much-needed self-care.

Skillicorn says, Keep breathing into the belly and tapping. Notice self-critical or catastrophizing thoughts that may be passing through your mind. Begin to notice that none of these stories are real, and that although you are uncomfortable, you are not actually in danger.” 

Then sleep, take a bath, text a friend, or go for a walk. And remind yourself that you are an amazingly-strong person and a panic attack is never your fault.

Articles from The Natural should not be considered medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, please consult a medical professional.