By Toni Stanger
CN: Panic attacks, suicide
For me, a panic attack is the worst feeling in the world. They are ruthless, tormenting and shattering to the soul. They are so debilitating that they often make me feel suicidal, and many others report feeling like they are having a heart attack. I’ve been enduring them for over ten years and, whilst it doesn’t make them any less terrifying, I’ve learnt some effective coping strategies, from mental health professionals and online resources, which have allowed me to have some control over them, and keep them at bay.
Using coping methods isn’t always easy, especially when you’re in the height of a panic attack and are experiencing many different symptoms at once. You feel out of breath, lightheaded, your heart begins palpitating, the chest pains kick in, and suddenly you’re shaking and your palms are sweating. All logic is gone in these moments.
With that in mind, you may feel as though these strategies “aren’t working” the first few times around, but I’ve found it’s important to keep trying. You aren’t going to be an expert straight away, as it’s a skill you have to learn, so they often take a bit of time and practice before they start being effective. The ultimate goal is to prevent a panic attack or keep them at bay, so these tips are useful for the onset of a panic attack in attempt to stop it before it peaks. However, they can also be used during the peak of a panic attack to help you calm down. Find what works for you:
Breathing exercises are a commonly used and helpful technique. During a panic attack, you may find yourself hyperventilating; this means you’re getting too much oxygen. To try and resolve this, breathe in you’re your nose and hold it for 10 seconds, then release through your mouth. Keep repeating this until you feel your breathing stabilise and you start to feel calmer. If you feel that your breathing pattern is irregular a lot of the time, the best way to ‘reset’ it is by doing regular exercise. This may be difficult, but even brisk walks or jogs are enough.
A good way to try and calm down is to distract yourself. One way of doing this is to focus on one or all of your five senses.
Sight: If you feel the early stages of panic coming on, a good distraction can be to change your environment and do something. Take a walk, sit in the garden, read a book and take in your surroundings. Watch a film, light a candle and notice its flame.
During a particularly debilitating panic attack, focus on a specific part of the place you are in. It can be anything: a photograph, a pet, a television show or even a spec of dirt. You can also try imagining something right there in front of you. Focus on this image and consider trying breathing exercises in addition to this technique.
Sound: Listen to your favourite song, soothing music, sounds of the ocean, rain or waterfalls. Listen to someone chopping wood or a crackling fire. You can find sounds like these on YouTube easily. You may even find the activity of finding sounds you enjoy calming.
Smell: Notice all the different smells around you: flowers, perfume, scented candles, or food. Perhaps spray your favourite perfume or put on some scented lotion. Take it one step further and spray pillow mist onto your pillow. Lay down, take it in and focus on your breathing.
Taste: Have a drink or something to eat. Cook something and take your time. Eat slowly and savour the bites. Is this one of your favourite foods? Why do you like it so much? Drink something calming such as herbal tea or hot chocolate. Focus on the taste. Does it feel hot? You can even focus on the current taste in your mouth, without eating or drinking anything. Is what you last ate or drank still lingering? (You might want to avoid drinks that may trigger more anxiety such as coffee and energy drinks.)
Touch: Pet an animal, play with your hair, change your clothes. Take a bubble bath or shower and feel the water against your body. Change your bedding and climb in afterwards, take in the gentleness and the freshness. Buy a thicker duvet and feel its softness, lay on it like it’s a cloud.
All of the above: Take a moment to describe five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.
When having a panic attack, your rational thought has gone out of the window. In fact, not only has it gone out of the window, it’s walked down to the local store, bought a can of Redbull, grown wings, flown down to the docks and gotten on a boat to travel far away.
It’s important to try and bring back your rationality, and a great way of doing this is coming up with positive and calming statements to tell yourself when you’re having a panic attack. Repeat these statements to yourself either out loud or in your head as many times as you like. Some examples:
- “No one has ever died from a panic attack.”
- “I can breathe, even though it feels like I can’t.”
- “This will pass. It always passes.”
- “I am okay. I will be okay.”
- “Panic attacks end.”
- “This has happened before, but I didn’t have a panic attack. I don’t need to have one now. Everything is fine.”
- “This might be uncomfortable, but that’s all it is: discomfort.”
- “I am in control of my mind and body.”
Panic attacks are scary, there are ways to help manage them. I didn’t think it was possible, but I am proof. They no longer control me – I control them.