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How to Manage Panic Attacks

A panic attack is a brief episode of intense anxiety. Panic attacks can include symptoms such as a racing heartbeat, shallow breathing, dizziness, trembling and overwhelming feelings of anxiety. Panic attacks are common and can happen unexpectedly. Some people may fear having a heart attack or that they are dying. However panic attacks are harmless to us and can be managed.

Tip 1; Understanding Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are our body’s fight/flight/freeze response when we have feelings of anxiety. The body is getting ready to defend itself with our heart rate increasing, higher blood pressure and shallow breath. This is our bodies alarm system going off to alert us of potential threat. Panic attacks can occur even when there is no real threat present.

Panic attacks are uncomfortable and can be scary but they are not harmful to us. You might feel you are going crazy, can’t cope or are having a heart attack, but this is not true. Panic attacks are often brief and will eventually pass. Often people will feel exhausted afterwards due to the amount of energy it takes up.

Tip 2; Don’t Fight Your Anxiety.

When we try to avoid anxiety or panic, this can often exacerbate the symptoms. Think of it like quicksand, the more you struggle and move around or try to get out, the more you sink down and get stuck. If you allow yourself to sit with the discomfort the feelings will pass, just as if you were to lay back in the quicksand without putting up a fight, you would eventually rise to the top. The goal is to manage your anxiety, not eliminate it.

Tip 3; Breathing Techniques

Hyperventilation occurs during a panic attack as we are breathing in too much oxygen. We can believe that we don’t have enough air or can’t breathe properly so people often further increase their rate of breathing. This can cause dizziness, faintness or rapid heart rate. The key is to slow down your breathing by controlling it.

Deep breathing can reduce the physical sensations experienced during a panic attack. Take long deep breaths through the nose and out the mouth. A helpful breathing technique is boxed breathing. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and exhale for 4 seconds. Repeat this several times to slow down your heart rate and reduce the amount of oxygen in your lungs.

Tip 4; Identify your thinking patterns

Panic attacks occur when we become anxious and begin to believe that we can’t cope. It’s important to remember that your thoughts are not facts. They are often false guesses about things that haven’t happened. Start by identifying what you are afraid of? Become aware of what is making you anxious and write it down. It is often the case that we overestimate or catastrophize situations. We begin to think the worst which makes us feel anxious.

Once you’ve written down your anxious thoughts, challenge them. Look for the evidence for and against this thought. Is it realistic? Has this happened before? Challenge the belief that you can’t cope. These feelings might be uncomfortable, but they will pass.

Consider talking to a therapist such as a counsellor or psychologist to help you manage your anxiety and panic attacks. It is helpful to discuss your anxious thoughts to gain perspective from a health professional on how to manage them.

Tip 5; Practise Mindfulness

Panic attacks can cause feelings of detachment from the self and from reality. Mindfulness is a helpful tool to keep you grounded in your reality when things get overwhelming. Focus on the physical sensations around you. Feel the ground beneath your feet, wriggle your toes or notice the chair you’re sitting on. What does it feel like? Point out some of the things you can see, hear, touch and smell.

Mindfulness is a good way to make your body feel safe and grounded. It reduces the perception that there is any threat present, which will calm the nervous system down. Remember that panic attacks occur because our bodies think a threat is present; we need to remind it that we are safe.

Tip 6; Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing various muscles and then relaxing them to help lower tension and stress. Tense the muscles for 5 seconds and then relax for 10 seconds. Tense one muscle at a time and go through different parts of your body. This can include your shoulders, arms, hands, neck, legs and so on.