Everything You Need to Know About Panic Attacks
COVID cases may be trending downward, but anxiety levels after two years of uncertainty are still at an all-time high. The pandemic has brought an abundance of stressors, both big and small, that can trigger full-blown panic attacks for anyone who may feel the burdens of chaos, loss and loneliness.
“Panic attacks may happen out of nowhere,” warns psychiatrist Dr. Vania Manipod, whose Freud & Fashion blog delves into topics like overcoming burnout, making meaningful connections and tips to approach therapy sessions. “Anxiety is an evolutionarily normal feeling that humans experience when in fearful or stressful situations, but when anxiety is experienced in excess and has a negative impact in someone’s daily life, that can be the difference between a healthy level of anxiety and an anxiety disorder.”
“You don’t have to have a pre-existing anxiety disorder in order to have a panic attack,” she adds. “People without any major past issues with anxiety can still experience a panic attack at some point in their lives.”
The good news is that anyone who feels like they may be experiencing a panic attack can take immediate measures to ensure their symptoms don’t worsen. Here’s Manipod’s expert advice for treatment, including how you can prevent an instance from happening in the first place.
What Is a Panic Attack?
The first step to lessening the intensity of a panic attack is to identify its symptoms.
“A panic attack is an intense, sudden episode of fear that consists mostly of physical symptoms,” explains Manipod. “Some of the common symptoms are shortness of breath, racing heart, tense muscles, sweating, shaking, fear of losing control and a sense of impending doom.”
During panic attacks, sufferers may feel as if they’re experiencing an urgent medical issue such as heart attack, stroke or asthma attack, but you technically can’t die from one (which is something you’ll absolutely want to keep in mind as a remedy).
How to Treat a Panic Attack
If you suddenly experience any of the aforementioned symptoms, there are three quick actions you can take to calm your mind and lessen the severity of your body’s reaction.
Take Deep Breaths
This may seem easier said than done, but the ability to control your breathing patterns will help to significantly lower your heart rate and blood pressure.
“When we sense danger, we experience a fight or flight response that triggers a reaction for us to evade danger,” says Manipod. “Our heart beats faster, muscles tense, we breathe faster — we experience a physical reaction to help us survive, and eventually we relax once we are safe.”
“When we experience panic attacks, many times we are not sure what the threat is, therefore the fight or flight response persists and the physical symptoms can further trigger our anxiety since, in the moment, we don’t know where it’s coming from,” she adds. “In order to put a stop to this response, it’s important for us to be mindful, proactive and recognize the need to apply relaxation techniques like deep breathing in order to trigger relaxation.”
One tried-and-true method is the 4-7-8 technique. Simply inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven and exhale deeply through your mouth for eight seconds. Repeat these cycles multiple times until you feel rested.
Immediately Challenge Negative Thoughts
The power of positivity plays a significant role in maintaining good mental health, but it’s more important than ever if you are experiencing a panic attack.
“During a panic attack, negative, automatic thoughts flood our mind, such as ‘I feel like I’m going to die’ or ‘people must think I’m crazy,’” says Manipod. “Counter these thoughts and remind yourself that you’ve got this and are going to get through it.”
Little affirmations like these may seem like they wouldn’t help, but research suggests otherwise.
Look for Distractions
It’s difficult to interrupt and subdue a panicked response in the moment, but Manipod recommends seeking distraction techniques or attention diversions to refocus your energy elsewhere.
“Step out for fresh air, squeeze a stress ball, sing a happy song or drink a glass of water,” she advises. “Or try grounding techniques such as focusing on something around you or touching the ground beneath you.”
These actions force your body to reroute its response to other movements, which will take stress off your lungs and heart. It also forces your brain to do the same which, when compounded with positive mantras like “this can’t kill me” and “you are going to be okay,” can help to alleviate any sense of urgency or despair.
How to Prevent Panic Attacks
While you can certainly avoid situations that may trigger an extreme psychological response (i.e. not scaling a building if you’re afraid of heights), Manipod also recommends getting adequate sleep and adopting stress-reducing practices like yoga or meditation.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint causes of panic attacks that can come on suddenly. Panic attacks can result from a combination of factors, such as medical conditions that have similar symptoms like asthma exacerbation,” she says.
But if stress-prone individuals make an effort to keep their anxiety levels balanced in everyday life, that is the first step to prevent a panic attack from occurring in the first place.
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