Panic Attacks: How to Actually Get Rid of Them (Instead of Making Them Worse!)
If you’re struggling with panic attacks, you know how terrifying they can be. They bring an incredibly overwhelming surge of fear, terror, and worry, putting the body in the maximum state of stress. Panic attacks can come on with a trigger (an external source of stress), but they can also seem to happen at random. You might have panic attacks in very specific situations, or they can simply be the result of worrying cycling up in our minds.
In full blown panic disorder (the formal psychiatric diagnosis that describes panic), the fear of panic attacks themselves becomes the primary problem. Worrying you might have a panic attack can cause you to have a panic attack! Fear of panic attacks leads people to start avoiding situations that they feel might cause a panic attack, which in its worst form, can lead people to complete isolate themselves at home for long periods of time (agoraphobia).
Here Are the Physical Symptoms of a Panic Attack:
Feeling cold or hot
However, for most people, the worst part of a panic attack are not the physical symptoms, but rather the mental and emotional ones.
Here are the Psychological Symptoms of a Panic Attack:
Derealization (feelings of “unreality”)
Feeling like you’re “going crazy”
Fear of dying (or thinking that you are dying)
Many of these symptoms would be adaptive and helpful if you were under a physical threat. However, in the modern world, how often is that the case? More likely, you’re responding something imagined that is not actually occurring.
Panicking About Panic
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably experienced some of these panic attack symptoms, and you’ve most likely reacted to panic attacks by doing what is most natural: immediately wanting them to stop, and struggling to make them go away! You tend become more and more upset as the panic intensifies. The thoughts like “What is happening to me?”, “I’m freaking out!”, and “I can’t handle this!” only add fuel to the fire of panic.
While it’s perfectly understandable to want to stop a panic attack as quickly as possible, there becomes an immediate paradox. Thinking you can’t handle, stand, or tolerate the panic attack sends a signal to your body and mind. “This is really awful! I need to get more upset to stop this bad thing from happening.” You’re now interpreting the panic attack as its own source of stress. The “panic attack” is the problem, rather than the initial cause of your stress. You are “panicking about panic”. The more you don’t want to panic, the more you will!
So What Can Be Done About Panic Attacks?
Here’s where a paradoxical method of working with the panic attack is effective. (And yes, it’s based on mindfulness, as many of my anxiety strategies are.)
If resisting the panic attack makes it worse, what is the opposite of resistance?
This doesn’t mean you have to like panic, or give up on learning skills to get it out of your life. However, when you’re having a panic attack, wishing it wasn’t occurring is unproductive at best. It ishappening, it is reality, and anytime we get into an argument with reality, we are going to lose, and suffer along the way.
Acceptance means allowing the panic attack to do its thing. Let the physical and psychological symptoms move through you, like the waves of energy and sensations they are. Let the thoughts come and go, the body experience the stress without trying to get rid of it. Allow the body to come back to a calm state by letting it recalibrate at its own pace. You might think this sounds a little “New Age-y”, but there is solid scientific research that attests to using these kinds of skills with panic attacks.
A Few Mindfulness Skills for Panic Attacks
What would acceptance and mindfulness look like in action? You might use my “divide and conquer” technique. You would notice the various physical sensations of the panic attack one by one with as much focus and concentration as you can muster. What seems to be a single, overwhelming experience can be broken down to its subcomponents. Look again the symptoms of a panic attack list above. These are all related but discrete sensations in the body. You might not feel able handle them all at once, but if you just pay attention with a non-judgmental attitude as much as possible to one symptom, you likely will find it tolerable.
Similarly, we need to let our panicked, thinking mind have its thoughts. Rather than being in the thoughts or trying to get them to go away, try to see them as simply thoughts, as mental sensations that aren’t necessarily true, and certainly aren’t helpful. Let the thoughts come and go as much as they like without regard to their content.
It’s Not Easy, But it is Effective
This is one of the ultimate human challenges. It goes against our very nature, but let’s pause and recognize our “nature” (inherited genetically from our ancestors) is not very helpful right now. We need to learn to use the evolved art of our mind to calm and center the other part of us that simply responding like an animal to our environment. You can help your mind learn that it’s the fear of itself that is unfounded.
Of course, this takes practice and nuance to execute. Establishing a regular mindfulness practice when you’re not panicking will help prepare you for those moments. You would benefit from learning a very systematic, mindfulness based approach to handling smaller amounts of anxiety, and gradually build up from there to full panic attacks.
Once your mind as fully learned it need not fear panic attacks by accepting them, you will find they will have lost much of their control over your life. When we recognize them as being an intense but ultimately acceptable set of inner sensations, they will begin to decrease in frequency and severity. You can get back to doing the things that are important to you, instead of worrying about your panic.