Have You Ever Experienced a Panic Attack?

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I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say something to the effect of, “I had all my bills in front of me last night, took a look at my bank balance, and had a major panic attack!” Or, “Today at work, there were two people out and the boss piled all their work on my desk. I know all about panic attacks!” No. Sorry, but if that’s what you’re calling a panic attack, you don’t know anything about panic attacks.

While panic attacks sometimes have something that might trigger them, what defines a panic attack is that it generally comes unprovoked and is not based on anything rational. They may present themselves due to an accumulation of stresses, but by definition, they’re not rooted in any genuine danger. If a bear starts chasing you, you panic. That’s panic, but it’s not a panic attack. If you’re sitting in a restaurant and you suddenly experience all the fear you would if a bear were chasing you, that’s a panic attack.

The experience of a panic attack isn’t the same for all. I felt particularly alone in my experience because it wasn’t the type of attack I typically hear described. Everything would be fine, then I’d suddenly get an overwhelming, impossible to describe feeling that everything in the universe had gone wrong. I became filled with a sense of unreality that pumped me full of dread and terror, and I felt that I was about to completely lose my mind. The actual attack would last only a few moments, but the residual effect would linger, leaving me in fear of subsequent attacks. It felt as though I had a completely uncontrollable bully living inside my head; a bully that could come at any time, any place, and ruin everything. That bully eventually rendered me incapable of walking out my front door without being heavily sedated.

More common experiences of panic start with feelings of intense anxiety, which quickly turn into physical symptoms. People often think they’re having a heart attack, or that they’re going to lose control of themselves. Some feel they’re actually dying, which of course, intensifies the anxious feeling.

It’s been decades now since I’ve experienced those debilitating episodes of panic. It was a long and often arduous journey for me, but I’ve learned many tricks throughout that journey that worked to heal and set me free.  Regardless of the type of anxiety or panic one experiences, there are tools you can use to learn to deal with panic attacks and ultimately overcome them.

Most anyone who’s ever experienced a true panic attack, the type that comes unprovoked when there is no genuine danger present, is willing to take steps to ensure that such an attack never happens again. The following is a short list of tools I’ve used that have removed the once unwelcomed experience from my life.

  1. Know, understand, and believe that a panic attack will neither kill you nor render you insane. You will not lose control. You will only feel very uncomfortable for the duration of the attack.
  2. Though difficult, practice accepting attacks when they present themselves. They will pass. It’s the fear of attacks that both intensifies them and makes them likely to return. When we learn to accept them, they begin to lose their power.
  3. Prepare yourself with something to add to your thinking when an attack first presents itself. Simply counting works for some. Reciting a chant, affirmation, or prayer is helpful for others. The idea is to inject at least one other thought into your consciousness to not allow the panic to be all consuming. That singular extra thought will take the edge off and make the experience much more manageable.
  4. While I understand how rough this can be for some, check and limit your sugar consumption. Consider completely eliminating all added sugars from your diet. Sugar causes extreme highs and lows in many people, and triggers panic attacks for those prone to them. Sweets and simple carbs at breakfast time are especially troublesome. Eliminating sugar was one of the final keys to my complete recovery.
  5. The same goes for coffee (and other caffeinated beverages, especially sodas). Coffee is a stimulant. Coffee can and will cause anxiety and panic. The good news here is that coffee isn’t as difficult to quit as some fear. The withdrawals only last a day or two, and most people who stop lose their cravings for it quickly.
  6. Learn some simple breathing exercises. Practice them daily as they have a cumulative effect on the nervous system. Just as with physical exercise, you won’t get any lasting benefits by doing it only when you need extra strength. You may get a quick muscle pump, but it will be short-lived.
  7. When an attack occurs, use your simple breathing exercises to gain that added relaxation. It can be as easy as breathing deeply to a count of ten, and exhaling fully while doing the same. There are many other quick and simple exercises available (that can be done anywhere). Google them and find what works best for you.
  8. Stay hydrated!!! Many people walk around in a chronic state of dehydration without ever realizing it. That was the case with me for many years. I simply don’t get thirsty. Consciously drink water throughout the day. Download an app or post sticky notes around to remind yourself if necessary. I keep a bottle of water next to my bed and drink as much of it as I can immediately upon awakening.
  9. Avoid self-medicating. Alcohol and other drugs may give you temporary relief, but ultimately, they increase anxiety and panic. If you are self-medicating, you will lose this game. That is a near guarantee. If you have difficulty stopping, seek professional help or consider trying a substance abuse self-help group (AA, NA, AVRT, SMART).
  10. A therapist trained in the holistic treatment of anxiety and panic can help tremendously.
  11. Eat as much “real” food as possible. Processed foods contain many chemicals and hidden sugars that can cause depression, anxiety, and panic. It can be next to impossible to find the culprit. Simply eating more fruits, vegetables, grains, and less packaged and processed food will have a dramatically positive effect on your moods. Food effects our thinking much more than most people are aware.
  12. Reading positive material helps to feed your brain with peaceful, joy-inducing food for thought. It helps make it much easier to stay positive if attacks do reoccur.

Panic attacks can be terrifying, but they won’t bully you around if you work with them as opposed to against them. The suggestions outlined here aren’t quick fixes. They take practice, patience and time. They will work – if you work them. If you have any questions please feel free to comment, or contact me. I’ll be happy to do my best to answer them. Wishing you all nothing but the best…

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