Panic attacks (or anxiety attacks) can be very distressing. It is not uncommon for people to go to the emergency department thinking they are having a heart attack, only to be told it is panic. Panic attacks are stressful and can even feel embarrassing. When panic attacks occur frequently, and we feel out of control, this is called Panic Disorder. If you feel you may have Panic Disorder, consider meeting with a counselor to learn how to regain control. Here are some ways to begin to manage panic attacks using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:
Do not fear fear:
Panic attacks are the manifestation of fear in our body. The racing heart, shallow breathing, and flushed skin are the Fight/Flight system activated. Fear of the attack pours gasoline on the emotions. If we fear the panic attack because we think it is a heart attack or physical breakdown the panic becomes worse. Likewise, if we fear losing control as the Fight/Flight system turns on, our fear response will only get worse. If you can accept that you are about to feel uncomfortable and maybe a little bit embarrassed, you will be acknowledging a normal human experience. We all have panic attacks on occasion. To accept this is the first step to managing.
Slow the body down (behavioral):
This is the “B” in CBT. Being in a state of calm is opposite from being in panic. Relaxing is sort of like the “off” switch for panic. This takes practice. Effective ways to do this are to practice deep breathing such as with mindfulness meditation or yoga. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is also effective. Remember, the body cannot be simultaneously in a state of relaxation and panic. Successfully relaxing (in the moment) is an effective offense to shutting down a panic attack.
Counsel yourself (cognitive):
This is the “C” in CBT. When we have panic attacks, our thoughts often run pretty wild. Common cognitions include, Here we go again! or This is awful! or I will never figure this out. When our thoughts run wild with our bodies the panic attacks feel 10 times worse. In fact, our thoughts are an important fuel source for panic attacks. If you can repeat rational thoughts to yourself such as, This is only temporary, or I can handle this, or I have tools to manage this, then panic attacks become much shorter. This is because rational thoughts relax our bodies, which again turns off the panic attacks.
These are three important steps to managing panic attacks. If you want to learn more or want a coach to help you through panic attacks, reach out to a counselor for guidance.