If anxiety is something you struggle with, chances are good that you have experienced a panic attack.
There are many misconceptions around what panic attacks or anxiety attacks are. But knowing more information can help make them more manageable for you or someone you know.
What is a panic attack?
The attack itself is part of an entire process, including a period of anxiety build-up, an acute physiological response (the attack), and a recovery period. The build-up can be for hours, or even days. You might not be aware of it. While they can feel like they last forever, keep in mind that an acute panic attack typically lasts 10 minutes or less. And, your body and mind always need some time to get recover from the stress they just experienced.
Physical symptoms of panic attacks include:
- Increased heart rate
- Feeling dizzy or light-headed
- Tunnel or blurred vision
- Shallow, rapid breathing
It's important to keep in mind that many of these signs can't be seen from the outside. Even if someone "looks fine," they could still struggle with anxiety.
These physical symptoms can accompany other medical issues too. (Some people feel like they're having a heart attack or intense muscle pain, for example.) For that reason, it's always a good idea to have a physical exam by a medical provider.
What makes it a panic attack is the accompanying feeling of dread. Some people name a specific fear around their job, health, or their safety. Others describe it as a vague feeling that the "world is going to end" or that something bad is going to happen, but they don't know what.
What causes a panic attack?
They can be random, with no specific identifiable trigger. That's why simply avoiding certain situations doesn't necessarily help. When you aren't sure what to avoid, or if it will even help, panic can really start to impact your life.
They can also be part of a more general anxiety disorder, in which people can name specific triggers. These are different for everyone. Some common ones are crowded places, public speaking, being around a certain person, or driving in an unfamiliar place.
What to do when you're having a panic attack
The first few times you have an attack can be really scary. You're not sure what's happening, or why. All you know is that you're freaking out. Knowing what it is can help manage that feeling of dread we mentioned above.
If part of you can recognize that the feelings are just that, it can help you ride the wave until it passes. Having a mantra like, "This isn't real," or, "I just have to make it 10 minutes," can help counteract the effects of an attack. Remember, feelings aren't facts. Just because you feel like something terrible is going to happen, doesn't mean it will.
Don't try to fight it.
If you've had a panic attack, you know that trying to force yourself to calm down won't help it pass more quickly. If anything, it will increase your anxiety around it because you feel like you should be able to control it. And other people getting in your face telling you to relax definitely doesn't help! It's a physiological, involuntary response.
You can excuse yourself if you need to.
You might be someone who wants others around when it happens. Or you might really need to be alone. Do what you need to do! Saying something like, "I'll catch up with you," or excusing yourself to the restroom are easy ways to buy yourself some time.
You can also educate the people in your life about what you're struggling with. Have a code word that signals to your friends or family not to question you if you need to disappear for a few minutes.
Alternately, it can help to tough it out. Not only does that lessen the impact on your daily life (you can still go places and see people), but it also trains you to feel less anxious next time you're in that same situation. If you reinforce the panic response every time you get on the freeway, for example, you're more likely to keep having attacks. BUT, don't force yourself to tough it out if you're not able to. That's up to you to decide.
Recovery: After the fact
This is the time to take care of yourself.
You can do a brief grounding exercise. The purpose of these exercises is to bring yourself back to the present, physically and mentally. Some simple grounding techniques are:
- Name as many silver (or whatever color!) things you can see around you.
- Make a mental list of movies starring Kevin Bacon (or, I mean, whoever.)
- Hold an object and describe its shape, color, weight, smell, texture, etc.
- Check in with your environment using each of your senses.
This focuses your mind on the here and now instead of on that vague anxiety. It trains your body to be grounded in reality and regulates your physiology.
Doing this doesn't necessarily help in the middle of a true panic attack, but it definitely helps you reconnect to the real world afterward. Some might say it helps to prevent them as well, if done during the build-up period.
It's not your fault
You might feel frustrated every time this happens. Or if you have someone in your life who struggles with anxiety, you might think they should be able to "snap out of it." Panic attacks are involuntary and feel very, very real to the person. And they can happen to anyone.
Arming yourself with some information may not make them go away completely, but you can still have a "normal" life. Anxiety doesn't have to control you.
If you're struggling with anxiety and are ready to change the it impacts your life, call (562) 704-4736 for a free consultation about your options. Prospect Therapy welcomes individuals and couples of all genders and orientations in Long Beach, Seal Beach, and surrounding areas.