Chuck Schaeffer Ph.D.

Psychlopedia

Anxiety

How You Can Manage Panic Attacks

Three strategies for taking back control and calming anxiety.

Posted Mar 19, 2018

Tinxx/Shutterstock
Source: Tinxx/Shutterstock

Six million adults in the United States struggle with a diagnosed panic attack every day.  Millions more will have a panic attack today.  Panic attacks are scary: Your heart feels like its beating out of control. You can't seem to slow down your mind.  Many times these sensations are so strong that people worry they are having a heart attack or dying.  

While I always recommend that my clients have a checkup to rule out a thyroid or cardiac disease, these symptoms often reflect a panic disorder or general anxiety disorder. Consulting with a mental health provider is the best way to bring relief to these symptoms.

But if you have a panic attack the following strategies can make you feel less scared and able to move on: 

1. Ride the wave:  Panic attacks come in waves of feelings and sensations. Most people try to fight off or avoid the intense waves of dizziness, nausea, tingling sensations, and racing thoughts. This winds up making them feel overwhelmed and helpless as the panic attack runs its course. While it seems risky, leaning into the anxious sensations and observing the experience can be a helpful way to ride out and reduce the painfulness of an attack. 

Panic Attack Tip: When you first start feeling panic sensations, don't try to avoid them. Instead, imagine each sensation is a wave that you ride all the way to the shoreline. Watch as the wave passes and crests, becoming smaller and smaller as it nears the shoreline. Though you might fear drowning under the waves, remind yourself that you know how to swim.

Repeat this process for each sensation until there are no more waves.

2. Ground yourself. Panic attacks can feel surreal. Many people I work with describe a panic attack as losing touch with the world and/or reality. They describe an out-of-body experience that can often feel out of control.  A great strategy I use with my clients when this happens is to find ways to ground yourself in the physical world by using your senses.

Panic Attack Tip: Notice where your breath is every day. If you can spend 2 minutes daily simply observing your breath, not trying to change it at all, but just noticing your breath as it moves through your body and lungs, you will gain greater awareness and control of your mind. This can be an invaluable tool to deploy during a panic attack in order to regain awareness, control, and calm.

Panic attacks hijack your senses, leaving your limbs feeling numb and tingly. A great way to restart your sensory system is by drawing feeling back to your limbs. The next time you notice any tingling sensations during a panic attack, try holding an ice cube as hard as you can in your hand and see how long you can tolerate the coldness. When it becomes too much, switch hands and repeat. Continue this process, drawing your attention back to the sensations in your hands as you squeeze the cube until you no longer notice any panic sensations.   

3. Turn on your thinking brain.  When you have a panic attack, the emotional part of your brain turns off the thinking, logical brain in favor of your fight or flight survival system. While this system was helpful when our ancestors had to contend with saber-tooth tigers, it can misfire in our daily lives leaving us feeling overwhelmed when there are no true threats to safety in our environments.   The good news is that you can turn on your thinking brain and reign in the intensity of a panic attack. 

Panic Attack Tip: Try talking yourself through the next panic attack you experience. Labeling your feelings and sensations requires you to use your prefrontal cortex, pulling your mind away from your emotional center, the Limbic system. Remind yourself that you aren't dying but instead experiencing a painful, passing glitch in your emotional operating system.  Plan out all the mundane daily activities you will do after the panic attack is over (e.g. laundry, going to the gym, flossing your teeth, etc.). Planning even small tasks requires your brain use higher level executive functioning skills that reduce the pull of your emotional mind.

Molly5/Twentystock
Source: Molly5/Twentystock

All of these strategies will help you better cope with a panic attack until you return to a normal state. However, if you experience panic attacks or live in fear of having another panic attack, you should reach out to a mental health provider. There is a good chance you have an anxiety or panic disorder that would resolve with treatment by a specialist in anxiety.