DR. ESSLIN TERRIGHENA identifies how you can support yourself if you are experiencing a panic attack.
Panic attacks can feel terrifying with their intense physical symptoms and overwhelming fear. We may feel like we are losing control or even that we are dying. The first, most important step is to recognize that what we are experiencing is a panic attack. Here are some ways of keeping ourselves safe while we are going through it:
· Recognize the panic attack – Even if we cannot prevent it from happening, we will feel more in control and less fearful if we can recognize that what we are experiencing are symptoms of a panic attack. It can be helpful to familiarize yourself with panic attack symptoms when in a calm state, so you can recognize them more easily when you are activated.
· Do not fight the panic attack – This can be the hardest part of getting through the panic attack. Annoyance that it is happening. Intense fear and panic. We want to naturally fight this state, do anything to make it stop. But fighting against it often causes greater distress. There are multiple reasons for this. One is that a panic attack is driven our body’s alarm system that is alerting us to danger. Ignoring this or fighting this will only make our brain fight harder to get out attention, ramping up the symptoms until we cannot ignore them. Further, our minds are already racing with fear. Getting angry or pushing back hard creates another threat to us, this time from inside. Again, this can enhance the symptoms as now the brain sees an outer threat and an inner threat or emotional turmoil – both of which suggest to our brain that we are in true danger.
· Keep your eyes open – It can be tempting to close our eyes and shut out the world when our inner state feels so distressing. However, the key way to help our brain to recognize that we are not in danger is to get external cues. Look around at your environment, label objects, describe what you see, focus on items, colours, or patterns that you find comforting.
· Breathe – Breathe to a count. This can be a 444 pattern or a 448 pattern, where you inhale to the count of four, pause for the count of 4 and exhale to the count of 8. If you can make you exhale longer than your inhale, then you are helping the body to activate your rest and recovery system and deactivate your fight and flight system.
· Create safety – If possible, go to a space where you feel safe, for example your bed, or the shower, and surround yourself with items that make you feel safe, for example your favourite blanket, or familiar comforting smells. Your brain and body think you are in danger, and we are trying to signal to them that everything is okay and that they can deactivate the survival mode.
· Stimulate your senses – Find something that will engage your sense of smell, touch, and taste. A sharp peppermint, a juicy orange, a freezing ice cube, essential oils, warm tea, a fluffy blanket or anything that is an intense enough stimulation to help your body connect better with reality.
· Reach out to someone you trust – As human beings, we are pack animals and by nature our bodies feel safer when we are with people we trust. Reach out to a loved one and speak to them or get them to come over and sit with you. You can share your inner experience or sit in silence with no pressure. Touch can help here as the release of oxytocin can help instill a sense of safety and connection.
· Ground yourself – Using mindful awareness of the present moment, ground yourself in your current reality. You can do so by observing your body, focusing on the weight of gravity experienced at your tailbone when you are sitting or your feet when you are standing, or using your five senses to take in the environment. Take note of things around you that make you feel safe or that signal safety, or label objects of a certain texture or colour. All of this can help you to engage with the physical reality around you, showing the brain that things are safe.
· Mindful Observation – Remind yourself that what you are experiencing is a panic attack and that the physical symptoms are normal and not dangerous. Observe your body. You can try a body scan, acknowledging the symptoms in a non-judgmental way and systematically choosing where to direct your attention in your body. Remind yourself that this is only temporary and that it will pass, and try to maintain an observational stance to the process.
· Be compassionate and patient with yourself – Panic attacks do not come at convenient times and do not observe our social norms or expectations. And that’s okay. Panic attacks are very physical and we may feel out of control. Be patient with yourself. Be compassionate with yourself. There is a reason your body felt so terrified and panicked. Instead of adding to that stress and fear by being annoyed with you or your body, take the time to connect with your body after the panic attack. What does your body need? What do you need? What stress do you have in your life? How can you bring positive change going forward? How can you prioritize your wellbeing?