How To Cope With, Or Stave Off, A Panic Attack
This morning sucked. Well actually, it started last night and continued this morning. I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say that ‘shit’ occurred. Shit that I clearly saw coming but that I’ve learned from experience, could not be stopped no matter how much I didn’t want it to happen.
Anyhow, point is, I slept like crap because even though I’m approaching ninja level boundary setting capability these days, the aforementioned shit really, really got to me. It got to me bad.
See, boundary setting doesn’t mean you’re a selfish, cold, compassionless human. In fact, it usually means that you care and feel everything so damn much, that you’ve learned if you don’t set boundaries, you will be sucked into a vortex of pain and turmoil so powerful, that it will render you completely non-functioning, incapable of rational thought or action, and basically of zero use to anyone.
Learning to set boundaries was born out of pure self preservation for me, and for many other people who would rather be alive, mostly sane and productive than, well, the opposite of that.
So, despite the boundary setting, the shit got to me so much this morning that I started to feel the symptoms of a panic attack coming on.
I’ve mentioned before that I used to suffer from debilitating panic and anxiety. Thankfully, after a whole lot of years of actively dealing with my shit, learning that I was not responsible for the happiness/actions of others, and collecting mostly healthy coping mechanisms, I’ve earned a PhD in, ‘no fucking way am I going down that road again.’ Hence, I haven’t had a full blown panic attack in about a decade or so. But this morning, I came close. Like, too close for comfort close.
I’m happy to report that I was able to reel it in before it sucked me into the abyss. I used all the tools at my disposal to get a handle on it and rescue myself from the horror that is a panic attack.
If you’ve ever suffered from panic attacks you know exactly what I’m talking about. The pounding heart, the impending sense of doom, the desire to run right the fuck out of your body so you can escape the gripping, choking, shaky, sweaty, deer in the headlights, racing mind, going crazy, fuzzy vision, I feel like I’m going to burst into flame and die sensation. Yeah, good times right?
This morning, I managed to diffuse the panic button and truthfully, as I write this, I’m still feeling a little shaky and spent because panic knocks the wind right out of your sails. The crash after all that adrenaline coursing through your bloodstream, makes you feel like you really need a looooong nap.
But, because writing is kind of like therapy for me, because I know how many people out there suffer from these same issues, and because I believe we should share what we’ve learned about things in case our experience and knowledge could be helpful to someone else, now seems like the perfect time to share the tools and tricks that I’ve collected on my mission to overcome my own panic and anxiety. Tools that still come in handy if/when I need them.
Before I get to the actual list, I have to say this important thing to you...
If you’re suffering chronic panic and anxiety (or any other mental health issue) and you haven’t told anyone or sought help yet, stop reading this immediately and get help now! I am so not bluffing here friend. Talk to someone who supports you and tell them how you’re feeling. Pick up the phone and make the appointment you’ve been putting off. Go see your health care practitioner and let them know what’s going on with you. Call your EAP and get them to hook you up with a counsellor who specializes in your issue. There is zero shame in it. I repeat, ZERO SHAME.
In fact, seeking help when you need it makes you a fucking hero instead of a victim. So many people suffer in silence. To what end? Why do we do this to ourselves and the people we love? If we all just started talking openly about our issues, we could breathe a collective sigh of relief, get on with the business of healing ourselves and supporting each other, so that we can fully show up to live the lives we were meant for. Attempting to cover up your issues, just makes them bigger, scarier and more powerful.
See, the second you decide to deal with this, or any other demon, you have the upper hand. The moment you admit to having an issue and take action to help yourself, is the moment you start taking back your power and your life. Abracadabra! Just like that, you’re a fucking hero! Go you!
How to cope with, or maybe even stave off, a panic attack - Tools & tricks I learned in the trenches that might help you too:
- Ask yourself, “In this moment, am I in any kind of actual physical danger?” I would guess that 99.9% of the time, the answer will be “No.”
- Get grounded in the present moment. When you feel yourself slipping into panic mode, immediately bring your attention to where you are in the physical space. Notice the sensation of your feet on the floor or your butt in the chair. Touch something that helps you feel connected to the here and now. A solid surface, a person, a pet, a rock, the grass, a piece of jewelry you’re wearing, whatever. Be ALL here now.
- Notice your breathing, which is likely quick and shallow. Intentionally slow it down and breathe deeply and slowly. In through your nose and deep sigh out your mouth. Put your attention on the inhale, the exhale, and the pause between each. Deep breathing increases the oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which helps you calm down (science says so). In fact, the simple act of noticing your breathing and slowing it down throughout the day, or doing an intentional breath practice daily, can help lessen anxiety and panic.
- Don’t listen to your racing, irrational mind. Remind yourself, "I’m having a panic attack, this can’t actually hurt me. This is just my brain causing my body to overact. The universe has my back. This too shall pass.” You may even want to try writing it down on paper. It can help you feel grounded and give you something to focus on as you remind yourself that you’re o.k. Getting educated about what panic really is, helped me a TON in my own journey. Once I knew intellectually that panic could not hurt me and that my body wasn’t going to give out or die (even if it felt like it was), I was able to cope much more quickly and effectively when I felt an attack coming on.
- Tell someone what is happening. This is hard I know. Especially if you haven’t come clean with people about your panic and anxiety. (Remember what I said about getting help now). If there is someone you trust in the vicinity, like a partner, friend, family member, co-worker or even someone you could call and put on speaker phone. Then do it! Tell them you're feeling panicky. This can help you ‘get it off your chest’ and help you to feel safer, and less alone.
- If you have a pet or a loved one near by, cuddle or hug them. I did this with my cat this morning. Good medicine! Touch promotes relaxation. There are many alternative treatments such as massage therapy, healing touch, reiki and others that rely on touch to promote relaxation and healing. You may want to investigate some of these for yourself.
- Move around. Go for a swift walk or run, shake it out, do some shadow boxing, yoga, whatever you like, as long as it’s safe. Physical activity can help make use of all that adrenaline and promote the release of endorphins which allow us to feel more calm and relaxed.
- Practice massive gratitude. I know this may sound a little unconventional but it seems to work for me. Focusing on what I’m grateful for when I’m feeling panicky, has a calming effect. I don’t really know why but my theory is, that it keeps me grounded in the present moment and that thinking about the things I'm grateful for must release some endorphins or happy, bliss inducing hormones. Whatever the reason, it helps when I start listing off (sometimes in writing) all that I'm currently grateful for.
I really hope this is helpful to you or someone you love. One last word of advice if I may…
If the first thing you try doesn’t work, try something else. DO NOT give up on yourself. I am a firm believer and have learned from personal experience and from working with other people who suffer the same issues, that there is no magic bullet, no one size fits all approach for everyone. When I became conscious of the fact that I was suffering from anxiety and panic, I started on the path to healing with yoga and added things like naturopathy, massage, chiropractic, nutrition, energy healing, therapy, mindfulness, and a whole host of other things to my tool box. Some of these, I rely on more than others to keep my health in check.
Maybe you will find that the holistic/alternative approach works for you too. Maybe you’ll find that the more traditional route of meds and therapy are more your speed. Or maybe a combo of all of those things is what suits you best. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as long as you get some sustainable relief and that whatever approach you choose constitutes healthy coping. Sitting in your basement with your bong/magnum of wine/porn stash/case of Cheetos every night, does not constitute healthy coping… in case you were wondering.
Wishing you all the love and all the healing.
P.S. I'm not a Dr. or Psychologist/Psychiatrist, so the stuff I talk about here is all from personal experience and what I've learned and practiced over the years. Here are some places you can go to get more information and help: