How to Cope with Panic Attacks and Anxiety

How to Cope with Panic Attacks and Anxiety

/ By Inês Viana do Carmo, graduating student in Biomedical Sciences, Portugal /

A panic attack can be the most frightening experience in one’s life. But, even if you can’t avoid an episode, there is one thing you can control – your reaction to it.

What to do during a Panic Attack?

Firstly, try not to fight against what you are feeling. It is important to remind yourself that you are feeling an intense anxiety, and that it is certain to be disproportional to any real danger that you might think you’re facing.

Most times, fighting your feelings or distracting yourself from them can actually heighten your fear of losing control, and perpetuate the discomfort. Keep in mind that the majority of panic attacks last around 4 to 6 minutes, subsiding after a peak of discomfort.

Relax. Relaxation is the key to overcome panic attacks. Relaxation techniques, such as, imagistic relaxation, meditation and breath exercises can do wonders in helping you relax, since muscle tightness is one of the symptoms of these episodes.

An excellent breathing exercise is breathing slowly and deeply, while you count up to five and back, for five minutes. It is truly efficient in the beginnings of a panic attack, as this process reestablishes the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide on your lungs.

Challenge your fear. Try to become aware of what you are thinking at the moment and try to defy those negative thoughts as they come up.

Give yourself time. Do not rush yourself during a panic attack. Don’t ignore or pretend you’re not feeling anxious – just acknowledge your symptoms as just symptoms, not the molder of your thoughts and actions.

A good strategy is to establish a time frame where you allow your anxiety to wash over you like a wave. To defy your anxiety to do the worst it can, and when that time frame is over, you clear your mind and let go of any tension.

Develop and use positive thinking reinforcement. Another way that contributes to reducing panic attack’s frequency is to perceive how you speak to yourself, especially when under stress. Panic attacks can be triggered by “negative predictions” – negative thoughts that you formulate when you think about the outcome of an uncomfortable situation. These way of thinking influences greatly the way you feel your body. If you are mentally predicting a catastrophe, your body will trigger a fight-or-flight response.

Adopt a positive posture and focus on calming and positive thoughts as well, while you work on your breathing.

Useful things to keep in mind

  • A panic attack does not cause cardiac insufficiency or a heart attack;
  • A panic attack does not makes you stop breathing;
  • A panic attack does not make faint;
  • A panic attack will not leave you insane;
  • A panic attack will not make you lose control, unless you let it do so!

If you are simply a spectator and notice that someone near you is having a panic attack, start a conversation with him\her. Be optimistic and cheerful as you speak with the person, assuring that everything is okay. If the victim seems too anxious, ask them to breathe mindfully and deeply using the diaphragm. Be the grip to reality they’re craving.

Why do I keep having panic attacks?

anxiety cope
Figure 1 – Cycle of Anxiety (taken from TriValley Psychotherapy)

After the panic disorder starts to develop, you enter on a daily cycle of fear. The cycle begins when you start worrying about where, when and how your next panic attack will occur.

You probably became overly self-conscious about physical manifestations or physiological functions of your body. This crescendo of anxiety often heightens the fear for the dreaded situation, which consequently augments the probability of really having a panic attack.

Remember: You don’t have to be a prisoner of your own mind, neither of your own house. You might feel like curling up in a little ball on the farthest corner of your home sweet home – a mild form of agoraphobia – but there is a way to overcome that urge.

You just have to take the following into consideration:

Anxiety is not for the long haulRemember your first anxiety attack. Your palms were sweaty, your heart racing like never before, the walls closing in as time began to slow down to the point it could drive you insane. The funny thing is that good moments can also make it look like time has just slowed down.

Do not hold yourself from daily activities: you haven’t lost the ability to make the most of your day. The anxiety you’re experiencing is just reminding you of that very fact: slowing down time for you, to make you stop and enjoy what you love the most, without any major worries.

Self-Medication: to Forgive and not ForgetI hate to break your bubble, but if you find alcohol an attractive and cheap solution to ease up your anxiety, you might be in for a disappointment.

Although ethanol is a psychoactive drug and numbs the central nervous system, in the long run it won’t help you in banishing the panic sensations – it will make them worst. Ethanol disrupts greatly the GABA mechanism, so, as soon as the alcohol effects wear off the GABA system imbalance is heightened.

Surely getting a prescription for tranquilizers is a safer alternative, but only for the initial phase of your treatment. It is easy to lean on tranquilizers to get over your anxiety, but with every dose you take, you get more and more addicted at the same time that its efficacy lowers. Besides, the withdrawal effects increase in severity the longer you maintain the treatment.

Be your mind’s best friend – A balanced and healthy lifestyle is the main key to keep anxiety at bay and silence preoccupations, regardless of having already suffered a panic attack.

An easy mnemonic for what you have to do is “The Three E’s” – Eating Habits, Exercise and Empathy.

  • You can lower your anxiety levels just by cutting off excessive amounts of caffeine, alcohol and sugary beverages – these products can cause sugar spikes followed by hypoglycemia periods which can trigger anxiety attacks. Caffeine alone is just enough to increase levels of lactate (Neuropsychiatric effects of caffeine – Anthony P. Winston, Elizabeth Hardwick, Neema Jaberi; 2005) in brain cells, thus damaging them and setting off a warning sign through the body.

So, always eat breakfast, and try to make small meals during the day to keep your sugar levels in a functional number. Carbohydrates are a good source for sugar, but keep in mind that the best carbohydrates can be found in integral foods, leafy vegetables and fruits.

  • Physical activity raises the heart frequency, but also releases a relaxing cocktail of endorphins (Lessons in exercise neurobiology: The case of endorphins – Rod K. Dishman; Patrick J. O’Connor; 2009) serotonin and dopamine, which can boost your mood for the rest of the day and relieve any muscular tension you might. If you don’t want to put too much pressure on your organism, a walk or a brief jog can do wonders. Yoga is also a good option as it makes you focus on breathing and bring awareness to your body.
  • Even if panic attacks leave you feeling powerless and alone, remember you can always count on your friends, family or a professional. Restructure and reinforce your circle of relations – the more you stay connected, the less vulnerable you will feel. This way, you can surely have someone to call and share your worries, and make them look actually smaller.

The interesting fact is that whether you are striving to tame your anxiety, or just making sure that it won’t be a future visitor, you may find that these recommendations are practical and applicable in both situations – these techniques’ effects prevail through time and they are really easy to remember, since they resonate louder than your own fears.

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