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Panic Attacks: What They Are and How I Cope With Them


I’ve experienced panic attacks all my adult life and possibly most of my childhood too, although I didn’t actually know what a panic attack was until I reached my mid-20s. I was experiencing these terrifying episodes, and I knew something was very wrong; I just didn’t know what it was. At my worst, I was experiencing multiple panic attacks a day. I would just succeed in calming myself down from one panic attack when a physical symptom like pain or dizziness, or an anxious thought, would trigger another. This could go on for hours, sometimes all night.

What are panic attacks?

For anyone who hasn’t experienced a panic attack, you feel like you are going to die. I know that sounds melodramatic, but it’s the only way I can describe it. Your mind races out of control. Your thoughts dart around without any coherent message. It’s like having a week’s worth of anxious thoughts in the space of a few minutes. Your mind is bombarded, attacked. You feel like the world is closing in on you; it’s suffocating. Rational thoughts are replaced by irrational ones; you think everyone is staring at you; you think this feeling will go on forever and you think this is the end of the world.

Along with these thoughts, there are the physical symptoms. You go through what’s called the “fight or flight” response. The fight or flight response refers to a specific biochemical reaction that both humans and animals experience during intense stress or fear. The sympathetic nervous system releases hormones that cause changes to occur throughout the body. Your heart races as adrenaline pumps around your body.

Your heart rate increases.
You may start to sweat.
Your hands may start shaking.
Your vision may become blurred.
Your hearing can become distorted.
Your skin can feel like its burning.
Your chest tightens.
You feel sick.
You feel dizzy and disorientated.
Your senses are heightened.

Triggers.

So, what triggers a panic attack? Your guess is as good as mine. The frustrating thing about anxiety is it can be irrational; there isn’t always a “reason.” I’ve had panic attacks in the past that have been triggered by just one negative, anxious thought. Anything that can heighten anxiety levels can cause panic attacks, like new situations, stress, negative thoughts, feeling out of control, deterioration in physical health or new medication.

Strategies for coping with panic attacks.

Having a panic attack can feel like the most frightening thing you have ever experienced. The thought of having one can affect your daily life and even stop you from doing ordinary things or going to certain places. But there are ways to lessen the severity and reduce the length of panic attacks. A few strategies I have found helpful are;

Mindfulness meditation.
Deep breathing.
Concentrating on my surroundings.
Repeating the alphabet.
Counting.
Reciting limericks, poems or positive quotes.
Listening to music.

If you experience panic attacks, please know you are not alone, you are not weak and you are not a failure. It takes immense strength and courage to get up each morning to fight the day ahead while struggling with these often terrifying symptoms. I admire each and every one of you. Panic attacks can be frightening and exhausting. Once you have recovered, take some time to rest and recharge. Do something you know will make you feel good and practice some self-care. Congratulate yourself on surviving another panic attack. Remember to celebrate each little achievement. Take care.

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash