5 Unique Ways to Get Through A Panic Attack

Do you know what it feels like to be minding your own business, in the midst of some mundane every day moment like driving or grocery shopping, only to suddenly feel like you’re going to die or possibly that you’re going insane and never coming back from it? I can tell you from experience that it’s absolutely terrifying.
If these feelings sound familiar, you may be experiencing panic attacks.
Odds are, if you’ve had more than one, you’ve probably been to a doctor or the Emergency Room because you were absolutely certain there was something horribly wrong. Maybe you felt like you were having a heart attack, couldn’t breathe, or were simply losing your mind all of the sudden.
If you’ve been down this road before only to be told it was anxiety, you’re not alone. Hundreds of thousands of people every year seek emergency treatment for what turns out to be a panic attack. If you’ve never been to see a doctor about your panic attacks, it is important that you do. What you’re experiencing may simply be a symptom of some other (very treatable) medical condition such as hyperthyroidism. It’s important to rule out actual medical causes before labeling it a panic attack because it may be something easily managed or cured with medication.
Panic attacks, if that’s what you’re experiencing, are downright terrifying. If you’ve never had one and you’re reading this to try and get a better understanding of what your loved one is going through when they experience a panic attack – simply spend a few minutes and imagine you truly believe your death is imminent and you will begin to have a sort of understanding.
One of the things you may not know about panic attacks is that they respond very well to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy treatment otherwise known as CBT. Through CBT you can learn about panic attacks, what causes them, and how to change your reaction to them so that they become less often, more short-lived, or gone altogether.
If you’re looking for some unique ways (beyond the normal breathing techniques) to get through your panic attacks, here are a few outside-the-box suggestions from my experience working with adults who struggle with frequent panic attacks and severe anxiety.

Educate yourself on what a panic attack is and what it is NOT.

Anxiety Counseling
When an individual has a panic attack they will experience at least 4 of the following symptoms (but you may NOT know that they all serve a biological purpose in helping us to survive in the event of an actual life-threatening situation:
What You Feel Why It Happens
Difficulty breathing Breathing switches from slow and relaxed breathing to very rapid breathing in order to increase the amount of oxygen flowing through your body so that you can function better to fight off a threat.
Increased heart rate Heart rate spikes to increase blood flow and oxygen to your muscles so that you can fight off the predator or run away quickly.
Tightness in the chest You naturally feel tightness in your chest caused by your faster breathing, quicker heart rate, and tensed torso muscles so that you can be ready to spring into action.
Dizziness You will naturally begin to feel dizzy as a result of over-breathing and your body’s redirection of blood flow in preparation for the “fight or flight.”
Shaking Your body can begin to tremble as your muscles become hyper tensed and ready to act.
Sweating You begin to sweat as your body’s natural way to cool down during a fight or a run. The sweating also plays a part in being able to slip away from predators or allow blows in a fight to slide off you more easily.
Difficulty swallowing or a sensation of choking Your mouth naturally dries up as your body redirects its energy to other areas that are more important during a survival scenario.
Upset stomach Your body naturally diverts energy and blood flow away from non-essential areas like digestion that become unimportant when trying to fight off a predator or run away.
Feeling surreal or detached from the present moment Your mind naturally allows you to detach from frightening or traumatic moments to allow you a “safe distance” from any trauma that might occur so that your emotional experience of fear is lessened and so are your memories of the event.
Numbness and tingling in the hands As your heart rate increases blood flow and oxygen to your muscles and other parts of the body that are vital for fighting or running away, it decreases blood flow to non-essential parts of the body such as your skin and smaller extremities.
Fluctuating sense of body temperature As your body experiences all these physiological changes at once, it begins to feel hot. As a result, you begin to sweat as your body’s natural way of trying to regulate your body temperate and cool you down.
Fear of losing control, going crazy, or imminent death These thoughts occur as your mind naturally searches for an explanation for the threat and physical reactions you’re experiencing
You can probably see how the physical reactions of your “Fight or Flight” response would be very helpful in an actual life-threatening situation. For example, if you are standing in the road and you realize a car is coming toward you, you would notice all these same physical sensations and they would help you to quickly get out of the way and onto the safety of the sidewalk. The problem with panic attacks is that they occur when there is no car, no imminent threat, no physical harm coming to you, but your mind still associates all those feelings with imminent danger.
Learning about panic attacks and understanding why your body is responding in this way can help take some of the fear out of it, kind of like watching the behind the scenes cuts for a horror movie. By demystifying the process, it becomes less scary and you become more able to say to yourself something along the lines of “This is just my body reacting to a false alarm. My body believes that I need to fight off or run from a physical threat right now, but there is actually no physical threat here. As soon as my body realizes that, in the next little bit, these feelings will start to subside. I can just wait it out or find something else in the mean time to focus on.”
While self-help for panic attacks has not been found to be as effective as proper treatment from a trained therapist, it can certainly help to understand what is happening to you and why. I’m a firm believer that knowledge is power so start reading up on Panic Attacks, Panic Disorder, and the role of our Fight, Flight, Freeze response in spiking the feelings of anxiety if you’d like to get a clearer picture of what you’re experiencing.

Read a letter you wrote to yourself after the last time you had a panic attack.

Panic Attack
When you experience a panic attack, because the physical sensations are so intense and distressing, you predict that you are either about to die or about to go insane. By putting these thoughts in a letter to yourself AND writing a reply after the panic attack has ended, you may gain a sense of perspective that you would not be privy to when the attack is happening.
Write a letter to yourself that you can read while you’re having a panic attack. In the letter you can validate your feelings (i.e. “Claire, I know you think you’re having a heart attack right now and I understand you’re scared.”) while providing yourself with a reality check. Try to offer yourself compelling evidence to the contrary:
  • “You’re actually in good physical health and you’re only 30 so it’s HIGHLY unlikely that you’re having a heart attack right now.”
  • “The last time you felt this way, it also turned out that you weren’t having a heart attack then either.”
  • “This feeling doesn’t last forever. It’ll be over soon. Remember last time, it only took 15 minutes. (Felt like the longest 15 minutes ever, but still, it was only 15 minutes.)”
  • “If you were about to have a heart attack, you couldn’t do jumping jacks right now or run up and down a flight of stairs. Go try it if you don’t believe me.”
  • “How many panic attacks have you had that resulted in death or insanity? None, they just FEEL awful, but won’t actually kill you or make you insane.”
In the letter, you may also want to remind yourself of coping skills or strategies you’ve found helpful in the past. When you’re panicking, they may not immediately come to mind so it’s good to have an actual list on hand. If it’s in your own (legible) handwriting, it’s often more convincing than a printout, online article, or statement from someone nearby.

Learn to Ground Yourself.

Panic Attack Grounding
There are a million ways to do this, but it essentially involves hyper-focus on your senses instead of your physical bodily sensations. Focusing on your physical sensations )such as your heart rate or fluctuating body temperature) only causes you to panic more, thus worsening your symptoms and prolonging the panic attack. The reverse is also true. The more you focus on the external, the less you focus on the internal, the sooner the panic will end. Here are some suggestions for various grounding techniques:
  • Find something that is pleasurable to the touch such as a soft blanket, fuzzy pillow, or your pet. Run your fingers along the surface and describe it to yourself as if you were describing it to someone who had never felt that surface before. (i.e. It’s soft and fuzzy. It’s warm to the touch. I can feel the vibration of my cat purring under my hand. I feel her hairs fluff back up after my fingers pass over them. The fur on her forehead is shorter and smoother than the fur on her back.) Then focus all your attention on that sensation and when your physical symptoms start to draw you back, just return your attention to the sensation under your hand.
  • Focus on all 5 senses while engaging in some kind of mundane task such as washing dishes, slowly typing the alphabet on your keyboard, or folding laundry. Describe the senses you experience (i.e. the softness of the bubbles on your hand from the dish soap, the feel of the keys on the keyboard gently pushing back up against your fingertips after you press a letter slowly down, or the smell and warmth of your blue jeans as you take them from the dryer.) The more detail the better.
  • Pick a color that you see wherever you are and find all the objects in the immediate area that are that color. (i.e. Green… the plant on my desk, the power light on my computer, the lettering on the poster, the squares on the carpet, etc).
  • Carry a smell with you that you enjoy. For example, I love rosemary so I might carry a sprig of rosemary in my purse, pocket, or car so that when I start to panic, I could pull it out and focus on the scent. Its important to choose a scent you find soothing.

Laugh it up.

Panic Attack
Humor is one of my favorite techniques and can be particularly helpful if you like to laugh like I do. Give this one a try if you respond well to sarcasm or making light of difficult situations. This is not in any way intended to minimize how frightening your experience is and certainly shouldn’t come from someone else (such as a partner, friend, or roommate.) But being able to find something funny in the midst of a difficult experience can make getting though it quite a bit easier.
I had a client once who called his panic attacks his inner cave man. Once he’d spent some time learning about anxiety and panic attacks, he was able to understand how the physical sensations of a panic attack are triggered by our physical and biologically evolved reactions to threats (which haven’t changed much since cave man days.) Once he understood that all the symptoms of a panic attack are the same reactions that have allowed us to survive since cave man days, it was easy for him to poke a little fun at it. He might say to himself, “There’s the cave man again, I’ll just wait for him to realize there’s no Saber-tooth tiger here so I can go back to enjoying my lunch,” or “False alarm cave man.”

Trick your body into thinking you fought.

Panic Attack
Vigorous exercise can be a great way to work your way out of a panic attack (pun intended.) If you’re somewhere where exercising suddenly is an option, it can be a great tool for getting through an anxiety attack. Because your anxiety is simply your body going into fight or flight mode, vigorous exercise can be used to trick your body into believing you “fought.” In other words, intense cardio for a few minutes to get your heart rate up and keep it up and can signal to your body that you have “neutralized the threat.” Through vigorous exercise, you actually make good use of the adrenaline and cortisol that floods your body during a panic attack. This way when your heart rate naturally comes down after the exercise, your other symptoms will likely subside as well. This also has the added benefit of disproving your heart attack theory and moderating your breathing at the same time.
If you, or someone you know is experiencing anxiety to the degree that it is affecting your ability to live the life you want, it is important to address these issues with the help of a trained mental health professional. Please contact us for more information on cognitive behavioral therapy and how it can help. If you’re interested in cognitive behavioral therapy in Orlando, or to make an appointment to begin treatment for anxiety, please give us a call at (407) 603-6132.

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