What is a panic attack, and what causes them?
Panic attacks are intense surges of fear, panic, or anxiety that come on suddenly. They can feel overwhelming and have both physical and emotional symptoms. Panic attacks look different depending on the person.
Common symptoms include:
- a rapid heart rate
- difficulty breathing
- chest pain or discomfort
- feeling dizzy
- feeling detached from yourself
Panic attacks happen for various reasons but generally occur when you are exposed to a trigger. Triggers are different for each person. Panic attacks can occur while driving, during social events, public speaking, or feeling overwhelmed.
What can help with Panic Attacks?
When you feel the first signs of a panic attack, it can be helpful to shift your focus to something else. Thinking about a panic attack often makes it worse. So engaging in an activity that moves your focus can help prevent one before it starts. In addition, it can make it more manageable. Engaging in more active activities can be helpful. They keep your brain present and prevent it from latching on to thoughts of the panic attack. Examples of these activities can include: physical exercise, walking, calling a friend, sudoku, crossword puzzles. Find what works for you!
2. Tune in to your senses
Grounding yourself using your senses can be helpful to stop a panic attack once it starts. For example, many people find decreasing bodily temperature beneficial. So you can take a cold shower or hold an ice pack. In addition, tasting something sour, sweet, or salty, smelling a favorite essential oil or candle, or naming different items you can see around you can all help bring you back to reality during a panic attack.
3. Paced breathing
Paced breathing can be helpful to calm your nervous system during a panic attack. It brings you back to baseline. When engaging in paced breathing, make sure you take deep breaths using your diaphragm, focusing on elongating your exhale. Many people find it helpful to assign numbers to their inhale and exhale. For instance, you breathe in for 4 seconds and exhale for 6 seconds. Find what is most comfortable for you, but remember to elongate the exhale. It can be helpful to imagine you are breathing out through a straw to make sure you can exhale for longer.
4. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation aims to relieve tension in one group of muscles at a time. Progressive muscle relaxation will relax the entire body. You can do this by tensing one part of your body, releasing it, and then moving to the next part of your body. Most people like to start at their feet and work their way up or vice versa. When tensing each body part, breath in, and when releasing that tension, you breathe out. This technique is similar to paced breathing described above. This takes some practice, so be patient with yourself. Don’t be afraid to find a video to follow along with when you are getting started.
5. Prevent Panic Attacks before they start by getting to the root of the issue
Panic attacks are not always preventable. But, things like mindfulness/meditation, regular exercise, and avoiding caffeine can be helpful. In addition, therapy can help you get to the root of what is causing the distress. It is essential to identify your triggers and practice coping skills. So you feel more equipped to manage a panic attack in the moment.
Our therapists in Whitefish Bay, WI, will provide you with more coping skills tailored to your needs.
If you feel frustrated by anxiety or panic attacks, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.
Ready to schedule your complimentary 15-minute consultation?
Claire Whetter MS, LPC-IT, NCC
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