People often confuse heightened moments of anxiety with panic attacks. A panic attack lasts between 5-15 minutes and it includes physical symptoms that strongly resemble a heart attack. We typically see numbness in the arms, a feeling of having a heavy weight on ones chest, difficulty breathing, and pronounced body pain.
1. The most important thing to do when experiencing a panic attack is to stop. Stop everything. Stop moving. Stop thinking. You do not need to figure anything out. The only thing you need to do is sit, breathe, and have yourself and/or a trusted loved one talk you through this. (I suggest implementing a hand signal to alert loved ones when this is occurring).
2. Tell yourself, “I will be feeling much better in a matter of minutes.” This introduces a healthy perspective into an overwhelming emotional experience. If you have been through panic attacks before, you know that they end. In the midst of the attack, people usually feel they are about to die. It’s vital that we give ourselves reassurance.
3. After the attack subsides, be very mindful of what you say to yourself about it and how you treat yourself. If this had happened to a friend, you would be compassionate. The easiest and worst response is to shame yourself/beat yourself up for having had this experience. This simply makes the next attack more likely. You are not weak for having a mental health condition.
4. There is a reciprocal relationship between anxiety and panic attacks. While it may feel like the attack came out of nowhere, it was actually developing for some time. Just as a volcano builds pressure and then explodes, we accumulate stress and anxiety and eventually implode. We must incorporate healthy outlets for negative emotions and stress.
5. One of the worst aspects of having a panic attack is that people develop anxiety around when the next attack will come. It’s extremely unlikely that this will simply go away. Don’t ignore it. Don’t distract yourself. Work toward resolution of your internal conflicts and improve your coping. Seek help and do your homework. Medication for panic attacks often includes use of benzodiazepines, which are addictive substances.
My experience is that medicating only the attack itself offers fleeting relief. Anxiety can be effectively treated in talk therapy and in both music and art therapies. I encourage folks to not limit themselves to one form of healing and growth. Gains are possible through a plethora of therapeutic undertakings that focus on release, integration and healthy coping. Yoga, Reiki, Qigong, meditation, craniosacral and other forms of massage therapy, breathing exercises, daily journaling, improved self talk and most importantly – increasing one’s support system and accessing it regularly (not just when we’re overwhelmed!).