The panic attacks started when I was in my late teens. My first happened at an ice hockey game. The whole building felt like it was caving in. My breath shortened, my heart raced, the lights around the arena made me dizzy. My mom took me to the car and I sat in the back seat trying to catch my breath, trying not to pass out. I thought for sure that would be my last night on earth.
More than ten years later I'm still dealing with these things. Sometimes I won't have an episode for a couple of years and then out of nowhere they'll make an appearance. The only constant I've found within them is that they're always a surprise. Even in my happiest moment, a panic attack can show up.
After a decade of brain battle, I've found some ways of coping, especially since they often happen when I'm alone. Try them out and see if they lessen the experience for you.
It took me a long time to get past the whole I'm-about-to-die/I'm-having-a-heart-attack feeling. These are classic characteristics of a panic attack and they're what sends you spiraling down the rabbit hole. It's hard to climb out of an attack when your body is telling you it's shutting down, and it's not as easy as deep breathing to get past the physical drama.
To tell you the truth, if I'm already to that point, it's best I take medication to get a grip, and it might be for you too. Nowadays, I do my best not to let my brain get that far into the negative thinking.
I've dealt with panic attacks so many times that I now know what they feel like, what they look like, and I can immediately take action before my brain goes into the darkness and my body follows.
Notice patterns in your own panic attacks. Does something spur them on or are they random like mine? What does the onset feel like? How does it progress?
Mine start with shortness of breath, like I can't catch it. If I don't take measures to calm down after the onset, my heart starts racing and my brain goes to crazy town trying to figure out what's about to happen - will I have a heart attack? Will my lungs collapse? Can we make it to the ER?
Of course all of those things lead to more panic which leads to more physical manifestations like chest pains and tingling fingers.
So the big takeaway here is nip it in the bud before it gets out of hand.
Easier said than done, I know. The last thing you want to do is deep breathe and chant some mantras when you feel like you're about to take your last breath.
But do your best to get your thoughts in order. Gently remind yourself that you're okay, that your body is healthy and will get through it. Tell yourself that there's no need to worry and that the panic will pass.
Take a few slow breaths.
I find that sitting up and rocking back and forth with my head in a pillow helps me. I know it seems like the cliche crazy person thing to do, but whatever. It works!
Also, try redirecting your thoughts. Is there something else you can focus on? Something positive that happened during the day? A homework problem or creative task you can think about? If there's someone around to talk to, have them help you refocus. When my sister had panic attacks, I'd talk to her about something she was excited about or make her laugh. Eventually they'd pass if we just kept the focus on something besides the panic.
On the opposite side of refocusing is stilling your mind. Meditation helps loads with this and I urge you to start a meditation practice. I like Dr. Joe Dispenza's guided meditations.
When the scary thoughts come, let them pass over you like birds flying overhead. Acknowledge them (you know they're there), but look at them as if you were on the outside and had no attachment. See them floating by like clouds.
The short and sweet list to keep handy:
- Notice patterns within your attacks so you can identify what's going on before things get out of hand.
- Slow your breathing.
- Sit up, lie down, stand up, whatever feels best to you.
- Redirect your thoughts and/or keep yourself busy with something else. If talking it out helps, find a friend or family member to help you.
- Acknowledge your feelings and thoughts, but let them pass over you without attachment. Clear your mind.
- If all else fails and you've been prescribed medication, go ahead and take it. I don't generally condone pharmaceuticals, but they can offer help at certain times.
Anything that's not on this list that helps you get through your panic attacks? Let me know in the comments.