This week on Exploring Neurodiversity and Mental Health, we’re going to be talking about panic attacks. As a person who struggles with anxiety and OCD, I have spent a lot of time dealing with panic attacks. In high school, I dealt with panic attacks on a weekly basis. For awhile I was dealing with them very well and then Bug was born. While dealing with PPD, I began having panic attacks again. You could say this is once again a post that’s very important to my heart.
A panic attack is a sudden onset of feelings of discomfort or fear. They begin in an abrupt manner. Commonly, panic attacks are over within ten minutes. However, feelings of anxiety, stress, or being “off” may last for the rest of the day. I have found that the sudden and intense emotions, as well as the physical reaction to a panic attack, leave me exhausted for the day.
The physical reactions include(but may not be limited to):
-An accelerated heart rate or palpitations.
-Shaking or trembling
-Feelings of numbness or tingling
-Feeling light headed, dizzy, or faint.
-Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
-Feelings of disconnect from reality or from oneself.
-A choking like sensation
-Shortness of breath
-Fear of dying
Panic attacks can be terrifying, even for those of us who deal with them on a regular basis.
Panic attacks can be a very treatable. There are many coping mechanism one can use to get through a panic attack and try to ward them off early in the onset. Panic attacks themselves are not a mental illness. They are most often a result of an anxiety disorder. If you think that you are having them though, the best choice is to reach out to your doctor and discuss your options to treat them.
As a person who has struggled with panicking, I wanted to share some of my personal tips on dealing with them-both as the person having one and a witness. Before we go on though, I want to stress not all attacks look alike. Like any mental illness, there are different triggers and ways to manage. We all may need different assistance while struggling. That’s why I’m going to share a handful of ways for both oneself and as a person sitting next to someone having one. Hopefully at least one of these mechanisms will help!
If you are having a panic attack:
As you feel your body begin to have that shortness of breath an increased heart rate, begin to mindfully breathe. Take a deep breath in for a few moments, hold it for a second, then deep breath out. Forcing yourself to physically slow your breathing can begin to taper down the attack. It should help calm you. Whike some professionals will encourage specific times for breathing in or out, I have found just being aware helps. Often in the depths of panic attacks I am not able to concentrate enough immediately at counting the seconds and breathing simultaneously.
I’ve seen this done two ways and use both frequently. The first way is to find objects to name off and identify. I will simply look around myself and name whatever I see. “There is a pepper shaker. The top is silver. It’s three kinds of pepper. There is the salt shaker…” and so forth. This technique will bring your focus away from the panic attack and if you can identify it, the trigger.
The second grounding technique I use is focusing on things I hear, see, smell, taste, and can touch. This helps immensely with the feelings of losing touch with reality that can occur during a panic attack. You are reminded that you are very real and sitting in this room. It smells like feet, you still taste breakfast, you hear people outside. Those are all real things and you are still in control.
I’m going to be straight up honest friends, I hate this one. Panic attacks often leave me shaking, with very low blood pressure and a high heart rate. Moving seems like the last thing I want to do. But…it works. Simply getting up and pacing can often make your body feel more in control. It can also help ground you as you focus on lifting your feet and landing back on the floor. Movement will help regulate breathing as well-you can’t forget to breathe while you walk!
Talk It Out:
If at all possible, find someone safe to talk to through the panic attack. Talking helps on both the physical and emotional level. Speaking will force you to stop your labored breathing long enough to get a sentence out. It can also help on an emotional level. Saying your anxieties aloud may be terrifying, but giving them a name may help calm you down.
When finding someone to talk to about this, make sure you have a supportive person. This person should not diminish nor crack jokes at your state. If they are capable of speaking back in a positive way, I encourage them to do that as well. Some people may be worried about talking to you in that state but can provide more grounding. And if they are able to help ease or rid the trigger that caused your panic attack, that is even better!
Remember- This will end and YOU ARE NOT GOING TO DIE.
My first panic attack was at school. I literally thought I was dying. My heart rate was going fast, I couldn’t breathe, everything was numb. It was one of the scariest moments of my life. I was very blessed though to have a faculty where one had experienced panic attacks before and calmed me down. She said to me over and over again, “I know you feel like you’re going to die…but you will be okay.”
Even as an experienced “panicker”(made that word up!) I still need to remind myself each time, “This will not kill you. No one dies from a panic attack.” In the moment it is so scary. I know. Remember though-it will end. And you will be okay when it does.
If You’re Supporting Someone Having a Panic Attack:
First-thank you. If you see a friend or a family member having panic attacks or you know they do, thank you for reading this. I know it’s not easy to step into a helping position when it comes to mental health. And if you are not well versed on mental health, it can be really scary. I hope some of these things will help you help those you love.
Secondly though, please please please ask your loved one before you do any of these things. While you may think a person is not able to vocalize what they need during a severe panic attack, they still have the right for you to ask. Before moving forward with any of my suggestions, please confirm that is what the person panicking wants from you. Kind hearted people have tried to help only to throw me further into a state of disarray because they didn’t ask if what they were about to do was okay.
I hope this article was helpful to someone! Please remember, I am always here if you ever need any more advice on finding a therapist or becoming okay with a diagnosis!