What are panic attacks?

Taylor Adams and Theresa Nguyen, Mental Health America

If you’ve ever experienced acute anxiety, you know how frightening panic attacks can be. Your body is responding in “fight-or-flight” mode to a threat that either doesn’t exist or one that doesn’t merit as extreme a reaction. They happen unexpectedly, even when you feel at ease.

When I experienced my first panic attack, I felt my heart pounding faster than normal. I was sweating all over my body while sitting completely still. It sounded like bombs were exploding in my ears and that I was watching my body from above. I thought I was having a heart attack. You may have felt similar symptoms. The good news is that an attack usually won’t last longer than ten minutes, and even though it feels like you’re dying, you will survive it unharmed.

If you have ever experienced a panic attack, talk to a parent, friend, counselor, or whoever you can trust about your concerns. Therapy and medication are two (but not the only) options to consider when treating panic attacks. If you have panic attacks frequently or you find yourself avoiding certain places in fear of having another attack, it could be symptomatic of a panic disorder. It is hard to find the exact cause of the disorder or a specific attack. By finding a treatment option that works for you, addressing your underlying anxiety and triggers can help identify ways to manage panic attack symptoms in the future.

When an attack is occurring, there are a few things you can try to help get through it.

1) Remember that it will end and go ahead and have a panic attack. If you've had a panic attack before, you know that it feels horrible and that the worse of it comes to an end - eventually. The more we fight the panic, the more it can extend the horrible feeling and make panic worse.  For some people giving yourself the space to say, "Ok, here it comes, I'm not running away and freaking the f$#% out" is just enough time to let you breathe and work through the experiences.

2) Breathe slowly and deeply. Breathing takes practice. You'll probably struggle because your body is used to freaking out and hyperventilating. Gaining control over anxiety and panic is retraining our body and brain to have better responses. You can breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth, pursing your lips so it makes a noise as you breath out, and see if your stomach rises. You can also try counting - as you breathe in and out. 3 seconds in, 5 or 6 seconds out.

3) Talk to yourself. Talk out loud if you need to. Tell yourself what you need to hear to feel better. Remind yourself that you are not going to die. Sing a song, describe what's around you. Practice a grounding technique where you focus on your environment and not where your panic brain wants to go.

4) Reach out. When things are calm reach out to others who can support you. It's good to vent, find others who share your experiences, who can help you feel less alone and encourage you to keep going when what you want to do is run away. 

In the end - do whatever works, but don't make it an option to do nothing.

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