I recently wrote another article for Anxiety UK (pasted below) about how I personally tackle a panic attack when it hits. I hope you find it useful.
How do you successfully overcome a panic attack?
In his book; Panic Attacks; A Guided Programme for Beating the Panic Trick (2004) David Carbonell (PH.D) argues that in order to overcome them you need to face them. A simple idea in theory, but in reality it’s about as easy as wrestling a dragon (I have no idea how George managed it.)
Nevertheless, in my experience Mr Carbonell is right. Facing the attacks and the situations that cause them is what ultimately makes you stronger.
For the time being lets forget about science and theory and look at how you deal with an attack when it’s physically happening. You’re in a meeting, a super market, or at a party and you suddenly notice those ‘tell tale’ signs. What do you do? If you’re anything like me then you’re instincts will be screaming at you to get out of the situation immediately before things can get worse. Although this resolves the situation temporarily, it will only make things harder in the long run as you’re technically rewarding your brain for ‘bad behaviour.’ Panic can often trick your brain into believing you’re in danger, when in reality you’re not.
So what I’m suggesting you try is to completely ignore your survival instincts (bare with me) and do the opposite, because what they’re telling you to do is wrong. Instead, stay exactly where you are and let the panic wash over you like a wave. Don’t scold yourself for being ‘weak,’ don’t run away and don’t try and fight it off, just let it come.
You’ll notice that panic robs you of your ability to think rationally (or in my case, the ability to think at all!) Therefore, it’s important not to jump into action, just stay for another minute. Take a few moments to analyse exactly what is happening to you and how your body is reacting. Try and write it down if you can. For example in my case:
- Thoughts: Oh God it’s happening again. You won’t be able to speak. You can’t handle this. You’re going to embarrass yourself.
- Physical: Sweating palms, rapid heart beat, holding breath, stomach cramps, numb limbs and feeling detached.
- Emotions: Terror, hysteria, frustration, embarrassed
- How I want to react: Breath more, tighten muscles up, fight it, make your apologies and run out.
All of the above are symptoms, even the thoughts you’re having. They’re not magical warnings of danger, they’re symptoms of an attack in the same way a temperature is a symptom of a fever and it’s important to spot this. After a while you’ll notice a pattern emerging.
The next stage is to make yourself a little more comfortable. Notice the parts of your body that you’re tensing and deliberately loosen these by moving them slowly. If you’re clenching your fists unclench them, if you’re holding your stomach in release it. This will help make you feel more relaxed.
Did you know that the majority of physical symptoms are actually caused by incorrect breathing? When we panic we try and breath more but make the mistake of breathing rapidly and with our chests, which in turn causes; hyperventilation, rapid heart beat and feeling dizzy. Retraining yourself to breath correctly is paramount in the battle against panic attacks. Carbonell terms the technique ‘Belly Breathing’ (2004) whereby you train yourself to breath slowly and with your stomach rather than your chest. Please visit his website for an extensive tutorial on how to do this; www.anxietycoach.com/breathingexercise.html
Finally and this is the hardest part, get back involved in what you were doing before. If you were shopping then carry on shopping, if you were talking to a colleague then continue to do so. By this stage, your brain will be screaming at you that you can’t continue (mine usually tells me that I can’t speak) but strangely enough I can, because I’ve been speaking for the last twenty five years and nothing has changed in the last sixty seconds! It’s a horrible trick that attempts to immobilise you and the best way to expose this is to carry on.
Now, it’s essential for me to stress that exposing yourself to panic attacks certainly isn’t an easy process. In fact, it’s bloody hard and learning to master them can be a slow process. However, the foundations you create tend to stronger than the fleeting relief that Valium or alcohol bring.
I would suggest starting off small and working your way up. For example I started my ‘exposure’ by coming back to work and having attacks at my desk and now I can successfully deal with them during high profile meetings. Make a list and work through it. As much as you want to avoid having attacks it’s important to keep facing them (believe me, I’d rather get punched in the face than have an attack so I know that what I’m suggesting isn’t easy) but facing them is what will ultimately free you. In time, I’m hoping that a panic attack will mean nothing more to me than a sneeze!
Most importantly, after you’ve faced an attack make sure you praise and reward yourself. Again, if you’re anything like myself and spend lots of time chastising yourself for the way you are then this impulse won’t come naturally. Nevertheless, it’s vital to recognise what you’ve just achieved. Facing something that quite literally scares the shit out of you is incredibly brave and you should feel proud. My reward usually comes in the form of a victory email to my mum, a pat on the back and a glass of wine after work, (Champagne if the bank balance is healthy!) A great idea would be to ring the Anxiety UK helpline and share the news with them? Sharing with someone who really understands what you’re going through is always more exciting.
If I can emphasise one crucial thing about panic attacks, is that they’re a trick. They’re horrible, devastating and highly stressful, but ultimately just a powerful trick and like most tricks, they can be mastered. You do not have to be a prisoner to them for the rest of your life.