How to manage panic attacks

Having regular panic attacks can have a serious impact on our day to day life, and the way it affects you will differ from person to person. However, there are some ways to calm your mind if you feel a panic attack coming on or you are in a situation which causes extreme anxiety. If you ever feel like this, follow these steps to help yourself.

There are several defining symptoms of a panic attack which are easily identifiable:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • Sweaty palms/excessive sweating
  • Fidgeting/unable to settle
  • Dry mouth
  • Hot or cold flushes
  • Feeling detached from reality
  • A fear of losing control or dying
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain or an upset stomach
  • Dizziness or feeling faint

Causes

It can be difficult to pinpoint a specific cause of panic attacks, but there are some common factors which are known to contribute to heightened anxiety levels and thus make panic attacks more likely:

  • A stressful job
  • A difficult home life
  • Social situations – E.G. large crowds, speaking to new people
  • Traumatic past experiences
  • Stressful life events such as losing a loved one or divorce
  • Specific phobias such as claustrophobia
  • Withdrawal from recreational drugs or alcohol
  • Medication
  • Chronic illness
     

Short term strategies

Identify your triggers

This can be a massive help. By identifying situations which make you anxious, you can in turn begin to find alternatives, or avoid this place, person or event for a while. This may be travelling by bus, being in large crowds or even speaking to a certain person. Try talking to someone about this if the situation is within your work or school environment, and there should be help available to you. For example, taking your exams in a small separate room instead of a large exam hall.

Practise deep breathing exercises

If you have ever experienced a panic attack, it’s likely you experienced heart palpitations or an increased heart rate. This can be an extremely scary experience, especially when you can’t identify a trigger or a reason behind these physical changes. Often this will lead to faster and shorter breaths, in turn making you panic more. There are several breathing exercises which can help you to cope with this feeling:

 

  • Concentrate on your breathing, in and out whilst counting to five for each breath in and out.
  • Triangle breathing: breathe in for 3, hold for 3 and breathe out for 3 seconds. You can also try breathing in for 4, holding in for 7 and breathing out for 8 as an alternative.
  • Abdomen breathing: Lie down on your bed/floor or sit in a comfortable chair, and place one hand under your ribcage, and the other over your heart. Try and breathe with your stomach, and focus on this.

Grounding techniques

There are some grounding techniques which can help you cope whilst experiencing a panic attack, especially if you tend to go through periods of dissociation.

  •  54321 exercise: This is a sensory awareness exercise which involves identifying 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.
  • Distract yourself: There are many ways to quickly distract yourself during a time of panic. For example, counting back from 100 in threes, or picking a colour and identifying everything you can see in the room in that colour, and continue with alternative colours.
  • Physical activity: If you really can’t bring your mind to focus on an activity like the above, take a brisk walk, run on a treadmill or even have an at home dance party, anything to get the blood pumping and take your attention away from how you feel.

Long term strategies

CBT or other psychological therapies

CBT, or cognitive behavioural therapy, can help patients adopt new thought strategies in an effort to manage severe anxiety. This will usually involve regular sessions with a therapist, and perhaps some homework to practise these exercises on your own. Negative thought patterns are transformed into more positive ones to aid recovery and more healthy thinking. Counselling, exposure therapy and CFT are examples of other therapies available.

Ask your doctor about medication

Despite the negative stereotypes that surround medication for mental health, it can be a brilliant long term solution for managing your anxiety. It may take one or two tries to find the right medication which works for you, so don’t feel disheartened. This sort of treatment takes 4-6 weeks to begin relieving symptoms of anxiety, so don’t expect immediate changes in how you feel, but be patient and the improvements will come.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

It’s often mentioned when talking about mental health, but having a healthy diet and exercising regularly can really aid your mental state, particularly during times of excessive stress. Getting enough sleep is also crucial to keep both your brain and body healthy, and staying connected to loved ones can be of great benefit too.

Avoid isolation

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting some time alone with your own thoughts, but try not to isolate yourself from friends, family, work and social situations in fear of having an anxiety attack or coming across a trigger. Joining a local club or volunteering somewhere is a great way to ensure you regularly get out and about.

So these are some techniques to deal with panic attacks in the short term, and more long term solutions. If you ever feel in immediate danger to yourself or others, remember to always call 999. If you would like to talk to someone, Mind Allies have a 24/7 service available to you, with experienced personnel ready to give advice and help you feel calmer.