What are they?
Panic attacks are a response to perceived threat whether there is an actual threat or not. Our threat system can be easily activated if we’re feeling anxious or if we have had panic attacks before which can easily fire off the light or flight response. This brief video helps explain much better than these few written words …….click here.
Why feeling in control is important.
We are not control freaks for wanting to feel a sense of control. Feeling a sense of control helps us to feel safe and secure. Not feeling in control often leaves us feeling stressed, worried or scared.
With anxiety, feeling we can have a sense of control is key and reduces our ability to have further panic attacks. Panic attacks have a number of symptoms and if we begin to feel one, we can worry that an attack is coming and actually bring it on. For example, if we noticed that our leg is shaking or our breathing has altered, our threat system may feel worried it’s coming which then activates a panic attack in itself. The fear of panic attacks is a huge factor that creates ongoing general anxiety as we fear they could happen at any time where maybe we’d lose control or embarrass ourselves in some way. Feeling we can have control reduces this fear and reduces our ability to have further panic attacks as we’re less fearful of them.
How to control a panic attack in 3 steps ….
As soon as we notice symptoms, it’s important to act as soon as possible whether this be feeling some physical sensations or a change in our breathing.
Acceptance and self-assurance – ‘I’m feeling this way and I can deal with this’. Being distressed at feeling anxious or out of control creates further anxiety and distress but it’s an easy cycle to fall into. One of the major differences between looking after our physical health and mental health is control. If we’re physically ill we can feel a sense of control that comes from it being tangible and that we’re likely to have experienced something similar before. We are aware and reassured enough that we it’s temporary and can predict how soon it’ll be to recover and we often know what to do to recover.
With our mental health, we do not have this same level of control and this causes us distress as we lack the sense of security to know when we’re likely to feel better and how to get ourselves better. This distress worries us more creating further symptoms for us to feel distressed by.
Having an acceptance of our symptoms, especially when it comes to anxiety and panic can help us massively. We’re not accepting that it’s good by the way, just that the symptoms exist and are present with us. We can then look to live with and reassure ourselves that they will subside. Self-assurance follows acceptance so that we can become our own soothing voice to inform ourselves that we’re going to get through this. It may not be nice and it may be horrible and distressing but especially if we’ve had panic attacks previously, we know we can get through the storm.
Breathe – One of the quickest ways of stopping a panic attack is to control our breathing. When we have a panic attack, it is fuelled by the increase in oxygen that is fed into our bloodstream by our increased breath rate. To combat this, we need to rebalance the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
– 3/5 breathing – breath in to the count of 3 and out to the count of 5. If you suffer with panic attacks, practise this when you’re not feeling anxious so that when you need it, it feels familiar. When using any breathing technique, it’s much more effective if we focus our mind on it. This means to notice the breath with all of our thoughts; to feel the air as we take it in through our airways and expel it out; to notice our chest and stomach expand and contract.
– Use a paper bag. In doing this, you are not taking in any new oxygen and this rebalances you quickly. This is seen mostly on television and although it’s effective, we may not have a paper bag to hand or want to draw attention to ourselves by using it.
It’s not always easy to control our breathing when we’re feeling panicked but this is proven to be the quickest and easiest method to reduce the symptoms. You may feel some ongoing symptoms as your brain has been pumping in the stress hormones (cortisol and adrenalin) which may give you some remaining physical feelings.
Mindfully engaging your senses. Focusing our mind elsewhere and noticing being in the here and now reduces activity in our threat system (that fires the panic attack) and increases activity in areas of the brain responsible for feeling contentment. Methods of doing this include –
- 5,4,3,2,1 – To actively notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste
- 3 – 3 -3 Approach – Start by looking around you and naming three things you can see. Then listen. What three sounds do you hear? Next, move three parts of your body, such as your fingers, toes, or clench and release your shoulders.
This article reinforces this mindful approach to managing symptoms – 4 Ways to Curb Panic a Attack.
Panic attacks are the storms our mind and body experiences under extreme stress or in the threat of danger. If we’re suffering with them, it’s important to feel in control of them but also to notice that there may be something deeper fuelling them. This can be linked to ongoing anxiety, low mood, heightened stress or self-esteem and it’s important to get the support that we need whether in a professional setting or from our friends and family.
As always, feel free to add a question or comment. They will always be responded to.
Price, J (2016). 4 Ways to Curb a Panic Attack[online]. Available at 4 Ways to Curb Panic a Attack. [Accessed 14 May 2022]
Real Life Counselling (2017). 10 Ways to Reduce Your Anxiety and Relax Immediately [online]. Available at https://reallifecounseling.us/reduce-your-anxiety/ [Accessed 14 May 2022]
Star, k (2020). Mindfulness Meditation for Panic Disorder [online]. Available at https://www.verywellmind.com/mindfulness-meditation-for-panic-disorder-2584082. [Accessed 14 May 2022]