It’s normal for you to feel anxious (and yes, even panic) in certain situations. Humans are hard-wired toward anxiety.
In evolutionary terms, anxiety is the survival trait that kept us alive. The person who was more anxious was more alert, and was probably the first person to sense danger. Panicking in the face of genuine danger is a smart survival response.
The part of your brain that responds to a perceived threat is an old and fundamental part of the human brain. It’s called the “amygdala”, and it doesn’t have anything to do with logic or reasoning. When this part of your brain senses danger, it goes into the ‘fight or flight’, high-stress response.
The fight or flight response is a normal reaction to high stress situations
Think of a gazelle noticing the approach of the hunting lion. Within a micro-second, she goes from grazing peacefully to taking off like a rocket, literally running for her life. Think of a cat lazing in the sun when a dog approaches – galvanised into attack mode with his hair standing on end, his back arched and a low growl emanating from his throat. He is ready to defend himself with everything he has.
Humans aren’t much different. Faced with danger, your body releases cortisol, which raises your blood pressure and suppresses your immune system. Your perception of pain decreases, your hearing sharpens. Your body floods with adrenaline, your breathing becomes rapid, and your heart begins to pump as hard as it can. Your muscles tense, your eyes dilate, your stomach tightens and your hands begin to sweat. You are physically ready to run for your life (flight) or fight for your life!
This is a helpful response when you’re walking down a dark street and become aware that someone is stealthily approaching you. This is not a helpful response when you have to go to work, or when you’re out shopping and it (seemingly) comes out of nowhere.
So, how do you cope with the onset of a panic attack?
Here’s 4 strategies that can help you stop panicking when having a panic attack:
1. Recognise the symptoms of a panic attack
When you’re having a panic attack, you might feel like you’re choking or that there’s something heavy crushing your chest. You may become nauseous, dizzy, sweaty or weak. You might feel detached from reality or detached from yourself. Your body could feel cold or hot or both, and you might think you’re dying. Generally, a high-stress response lasts about 20 – 30 minutes, but it can feel like a lot longer.
When you experience panic symptoms in the absence of a real threat, it’s called an anxiety attack, or a panic attack. Up to 5% of the population worldwide may experience a panic attack, according to the World Health Organisation and the Harvard School of Public Health. This can be incredibly scary as it triggers an episode of intense fear. You don’t have anything to fight or flee from, so your body has no idea what to do with all that cortisol. Recognise that you’re having a panic attack. Remind yourself that this will pass (it will!).
If you experience the symptoms of a panic attack suddenly and unexpectedly, you probably think you’re going crazy! During a panic episode, you even might rush to a doctor or a hospital ER because you think you’re having a heart attack or some other serious illness.
Interestingly, other people may not realise how much you’re suffering. Sometimes, people having a panic attack don’t show any obvious outward symptoms. It’s all happening on the inside.
2. Distract yourself
Sniff lavender or any other scent you like (it’s calming), drink a glass of water, or have something to eat. These are ways to engage and soothe your body into realising it is not in a life-threatening situation and it’s okay to calm down.
3. Go for a walk
Sometimes moving can be the best way to disperse the stress in your body. By going for a walk, you’re taking your energy away from the stressful situation, allowing your breathing to regulate and releasing endorphins that relax your body and improve your mood.
4. Use Box breathing
- Sit down in a chair with your back supported and your feet on the floor (this is important, you need to be able to relax and having your feet down helps to ground you).
- Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose, counting slowly to 4. Feel the air going into your lungs.
- Hold your breath inside your lungs while counting slowly to 4. There’s no need to clamp your nose or mouth. Just gently avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds.
- Exhale slowly over 4 seconds. If this feels too hard, it’s okay to do all the above parts for a count of 3.
You don’t need to be panicking to benefit from box breathing. Solid research agrees that this method helps release stress and lowers the level of cortisol in your body. It’s also a technique used by Navy Seals.
Pause now and give it a try!
Different people respond better to different strategies or a combination of strategies. Always go with the strategy that works best for you.
How do you know if you’re having a panic attack and not a heart attack?
The short answer? You don’t.
If this is the first time you’ve ever experienced these symptoms or you’re not sure, err on the side of caution and seek emergency medical advice. When I see a client presenting with symptoms of a panic attack, I always refer them to a medical professional to make sure there isn’t an underlying physical reason for his/her symptoms. Better safe than sorry!
When you have recurring anxiety or panic attacks, you may begin to avoid situations that trigger these unpleasant symptoms. This might seem like a sensible solution, but it actually worsens the problem. Recurring, unexpected panic attacks and the avoidance behaviour that may accompany them can interfere with your ability to function, and to enjoy your life.
If this resonates with what you’ve been experiencing, seek help from a licensed mental health professional! Panic disorder is treatable. If you’re not sure if this is something that affects you, seek help to find out what is really going on.
I’d love to help you find your truth. Contact me to schedule an appointment.