Preventing Panic Attacks - Know the Facts

This week we are talking about how we can avoid a panic attacks.  Panic attacks are a very real and often a very scary experience!  Panic disorder is developed when an individual continually interprets their body sensations to be dangerous, sometimes resulting in a belief that their very life is at risk.  If this happens to you, it is important to know that there are effective ways to cope with these distressing feelings.  Today, I am going to share several ways you can better cope with panic attacks when they come on. 

Get the Facts - One of the first things to do is to understand the facts about panic attacks. Knowing what they are can be empowering and can help prepare one to know what to do when they happen.  

  1. Panic attacks occur when a person's body is triggered into the "Fight, Flight or Freeze" response to a perceived threat. When this occurs, people often misinterpret their bodily sensations to mean that they are in some form of danger. However, sometimes our bodies react this way when there is no present danger.

  2. Secondly, the feeling of panic is harmless, even though it feels very scary and uncomfortable. It might feel like you are "dying" or "going crazy," but in reality, you are not.

  3. Finally, it is important to know that these attacks are short, typically lasting 5-10 minutes of peak intensity. When it is over, you may feel exhausted because these attacks use up a lot of energy.

Build toolbox of coping strategies - If you are susceptible to having panic attacks, there are things you can do to be prepared for them.  Here are some ideas:

  1. Abdominal Breathing - When we are anxious or feeling panicky, we will breathe faster and more shallow breaths. To calm down, take a few slow, deep, regular breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Practice this regularly, 2-3 day. This link provides a great way to monitor your breath:

  2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation - This strategy teaches you to relax your body by tensing various muscles and then relaxing them in order to reduce your body's overall tension and stress levels that can often contribute to panic attacks. There are numerous resources on Youtube for guided muscle relaxation.

  3. Mindfulness/Meditation - Mindfulness is when you focus on the "here-and-now" through utilizing all of your senses. It is a way to concentrate on being present, and in the moment, rather than focusing on your fear of being out of control. Meditation can be a helpful way to teach you the skill of being mindful. Again, there are many guided meditation/mindfulness apps and videos to help you develop this skill in managing your panic attacks.

  4. Challenging your thoughts - This is one of the best ways to cope with panic attacks, particularly in the moment. By focusing on being realistic in your thinking, you can better control the unrealistic thoughts that occur during a panic attack. These thoughts can be categorized into "catastrophic thinking" or "overestimating" what could happen. If you do either of these, challenge your thoughts by asking questions, such as: 1) What would be the worst thing that could happen? 2) What am I afraid of? 3) What could I do to cope if it did happen?

  5. Awareness of triggers/response - Think about what triggers you into feeling panic and how you respond. Once you are aware of your triggers, you can be better equipped to choose a different response. How do you want to react when you feel triggered? Once you can define the way you WANT to react, then you can proactively make a conscious choice to respond in a different way (i.e., utilizing coping strategies rather than being victimized by the panic)

  6. Face your fears - Probably the most important thing you can do to manage your fear and panic is to actively face your fear. Although it may seem counterintuitive, slowly exposing yourself to the very thing that frightens you is the very thing that will help you overcome your fear and anxiety. You can learn to tolerate the uncomfortable feared body sensations and realize that they are just feelings, that you are not going crazy and you will not die by feeling these sensations in your body. The goal is to feel the feeling, not fight them!

I hope that these strategies can be helpful as you learn more about what panic attacks are, what perpetuates them, and how to better cope with them when they come.  Tomorrow Natalie will share ways you can prevent panic attacks, so stay tuned!  Thanks for reading!

Written by Emily Freeze, MPH, MA, LMFT

Emily Freeze, MPH, MA, LMFT is a marriage and family therapist at New Beginnings Family Counseling.