Panic attacks can be very scary at times, especially if you have never experienced one before. As silly as it may sound, defining panic attacks and understanding their symptoms is a large part of dealing with them. Additionally, there are some tips as easy as breathing (literally) that will help kick your parasympathetic nervous system into gear, which will slow your heart rate and therefore calm you down. There is also a bit of stigma around panic attacks and anxiety, especially due to the casual uses of these words for the purpose of humor and exaggeration. Have you ever heard someone say “Wow, I didn’t know you were behind me, I just had a panic attack!”? Yeah, not so much how it actually works. These identifiers and strategies will hopefully help you next time a situation like this arises.
What are the symptoms?
As it was once described to me by a friend, “your first panic attack kind of feels like you are dying.” As vastly comforting as that was (not!), I wanted some concrete signs that I could look for. Now, all of these reactions can be simply explained through biology and psychology, but of course no one in the midst of a panic attack is thinking analytically about their anatomical responses to stress. Several major symptoms of panic are hyperventilation and chest pain. Sometimes the panic can make it feel hard to breath, almost like your windpipe is blocked up in your chest, which creates the pain you may feel in that region. While your respiratory system is still intact, your brain worries that it is failing, which causes you to unintentionally begin taking shorter, quicker breaths in order to quickly restore the oxygen that your brain thinks it is losing.
Another symptom that can be concerning is the feeling of tingling, usually in the extremities. I would describe this phenomenon as my hands or feet “suddenly falling asleep.” In stressful times where the brain feels that the body may be under some kind of attack, it will reallocate resources like blood and oxygen to the organs that are most important to the body’s functioning, such as the brain, lungs, and heart. This can result in the feeling that the body parts far from your heart are asleep, because the brain is more worried about nourishing the parts of the body that are vital to survival. A final common symptom is a sudden change in temperature accompanied by sweating. Sweating is a natural bodily reaction to the activation of the stress response, just as one might sweat a bit before a big performance or a speech in front of a large group of people. However, the excessive stress causes excessive sweating, which can be a bit worrisome when paired with all these other symptoms.
Keep breathing, y’all.
Given that breathing is one of the things that we feel we cannot control during an attack, the simple advice to “just breathe normally!”, is not particularly helpful. Here is a simple and psychologically sound way to slow your breathing down and deter the panic attack from continuing. You know those swinging saloon doors that are famously flung open as the western hero enters the bar in the movies, guns ablaze? Well, close your eyes and picture those doors, but without the eerie music and flying tumbleweed. As you inhale, picture these doors swinging in toward you, and as you exhale picture them swinging out and away from you. Subconsciously, your brain knows that given the engineering of these doors, they cannot swing quickly enough to match your breathing rate during hyperventilation. Therefore, picturing these doors constrained by their physical capabilities will subconsciously slow down your breathing rate.
I Spy, with my little eye…
If mental visualization does not suit your liking, another tactic is to talk about your surroundings. Details are key, and speaking out loud is also an important component to this coping mechanism. Whether or not someone else is present, verbalizing every little detail around you can help calm your symptoms for several reasons. First, in order to speak, you must be breathing slowly to a certain extent or the words will not come out. Second, speaking (rather than thinking) will keep your mind on track with what you are saying, and not allowing your brain to wander back to the panic. Third, there are endless details around you, no matter where you are. Focusing on every possible detail will home your mind in on these external characteristics, allocating more brain power to this task than to maintaining the panic.
I hope these tips are helpful to you in riding the wave of a panic attack, should you ever have one. If you are currently experiencing panic attacks, please seek professional help as soon as possible. You can contact your primary care physician, go to an urgent care facility, or if necessary, go to the emergency room. I highly recommend getting a referral for a mental health professional (whether that be a psychiatrist, a psychologist or a therapist) so that you can find relief for your symptoms and also address the root cause of the panic. Here is an article about how to find a therapist. If you are in the Los Angeles area, consider seeing Natalie or reviewing her recommendations for low-cost counseling in L.A.
That said, now I'd love to hear from you! How have you managed panic and anxiety? What worked to reduce it? What didn't work very well? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below. Thank you for reading and be well!
about the author
Hi! I'm Jackie, a psychology undergrad at Vanderbilt who loves dogs more than just about anything. When I'm not busy mentoring, you can find me playing or watching volleyball, playing the violin or, of course, watching a ton of Netflix!