Having dealt with panic attacks for over a quarter of my life I feel like I have dealt with almost every approach (including some of the more unconventional ones from my own noggin) and like everything some have more use than others.
I thought I would share what strategies I use when I feel one coming on and when one is in full swing.
*Disclaimer: I have no qualifications associated with mental health and am only discussing experience.
Before a Panic Attack
Panic Attacks rarely waltz through the door without a little heads up first. It can be anything from a change in thought pattern to a feeling like your throat is going to close up (and everything in between).
Know the signs
It took me a little while to get out of my head and figure out what signs it was giving me before it got to the full-blown panic, but once I did, preventing panic attacks got so much easier. Over time this knowledge then became instinctual and I didn’t have to concentrate on it so much.
Tip: Find a safe place and go through your panic attack experience step by step (backwards if that’s easier), bullet point anything that you sensed along the way and go from there.
Know the triggers
Again this is something that requires a bit of forethought but will help in the long run. If you’ve had panic attacks before you may have an idea of what triggers them (sometimes its a random thought or a situation you really don’t like – planes *shudders*).
Take a few minutes to list them but don’t go out of your way to avoid them. Push yourself little by little but before you go into them you can have a battle plan in place (because panic attacks are literally your mind and body going all out postal sometimes).
I promise I won’t launch into Lion King … this time round. If I know I am going into a ‘hostile’ (see the whole war theme developing? Stick with me here) or anxiety invoking situation then have a few things in place. I make sure I have my headphones so I can listen to music, if I am gonna be there a while I bring knitting or my tablet with no wifi necessary games on it etc. It takes a while to get the best cocktail of techniques and as with everything; everyone is different.
Location Location Location
Sometimes its impossible to know exactly what is on offer where you are or where you are going. As strange as it sounds locate the following: Toilets, exits, cheap water and seats. I used to get panic attacks a lot in London and I still do on occasions, especially on the Tube which can be like a box on wheels sometimes. I always make sure to find toilets – privacy plus toilet^^, exits – cos sometimes you do just need to leg it, cheap water – helps with taking medication, sips if you feel faint and just generally a good habit and seats – with my panic attacks I felt like I was gonna faint … a lot.
I also like to know where the ‘safe’ areas are. I don’t mean like places where you won’t get mugged. I find places where I can walk easily without getting stuck behind people – Trafalgar Square definitely don’t qualify – you get my drift. I like knowing exactly how to get home too so I can safely make it back without having to worry about getting home.
During a Panic Attack
Oh my god. For most of my life and I’m sure for years to come I will say F*** you to breathing, bird and all. People who can breathe and then 2 minutes later your panic attack is gone – I am jealous.
For those of us who do not posses this super power I offer an alternative. Heart rate accelerating activity. If out I walk as fast as I can, indoors I dance, star jump or run up and down the stairs. Your body’s fight or flight response gets drowned out by your body’s reaction to physical activity and voila breathing begins to normalize itself (most of the time… for me anyways).
If I don’t feel comfortable around certain people I get the hell out of there and somewhere safe. If I can’t and there is someone I trust, I tell them and they get me the hell out of there. Or they stick with me and we … breathe it out (often with a lot of swearing on my part). I also go somewhere less crowded cos I don’t need people watching my body freak out – I’m witness enough.
My favorite one. Here are a few mental distractions I like to use when my body doesn’t know left from right:
- Describe your surroundings
- Have a conversation with someone
- Do a mental task that requires brain power – the wonders of learning a second language
- Go over choreography in your head (for all those kpop lovers the more advanced the quicker it stops :O)
Often I have to utilize other strategies whilst doing them but this still remains my go to – especially when in a crowded room. That almost rhymed ^^
Anyone who knows me knows I can’t even watch TV without fiddling or doing something with my hands. I will knit, do Sudoku, write, draw, colour and so much more even if I am just feeling anxious. Having something to fiddle with (even better if you have to think about it) can take away some of the panic and uses some of your concentration when you focus on what your hands are doing – its all about that focus.
I’ve found over the years that I have to multi-task when I do a lot of things because it keeps the voices in my head (be them anxiety or depression inspired) at bay and allows me to get on with everyday life. Having something going on in the background whilst I focus on a main task makes me focus on that main task that much harder.
During a panic attack I will stick some TV on and do something (I have a number of safe options that are often comedies cos laughter and breathing work well together). Or I try and have a task not requiring much brain power alongside a slightly more difficult task. It takes a while to get the balance and combination right but I find this works best for me.
When dealing with a panic attack the worst thing you can do is rush. If you time a panic attack or try and tell yourself to get over it quickly your body gets more worked up. Give yourself time to get over it. Slow down, have a sip of water and … take a deep breath (yeah I said it again).
Walk it off if you can. I could walk for England (if I had to) and find its a great way to de-stress even when I’m not anxious. I have a Safe Playlist of songs that have only good memories or make me smile and get lost in daydreams whilst I’m walking a route I know like the back of my hand. This way I can focus on the safe areas of my head rather than worrying about where I am going. I always make sure I have a safe walk route when I move to a new area (which happens more often than I would like).
Remember to only walk if you know you are safe though. If you feel like you might do something dangerous please stay home.
As an experienced worrier I have been through about as many panic attacks as there have been full moons. I know they won’t kill me, I won’t die from them and I will come out of it afterwards. So I like to let them run their course if they aren’t preventing me from breathing. I bring whatever job is at hand to the foreground of my head and the panic attacks tend to go away on their own. Sometimes I don’t realize its stopped till half an hour after!
As always if you feel like your panic attack is out of control and you can’t breathe or feel like you will die and it won’t stop please call one of the numbers below:
Anxiety UK: 08444 775 774 Mon-Fri 9.30am – 5.30pm
The Samaritans : 116 123
More numbers for specific conditions and alternatives: Get Self Help
(I’m sorry this is a UK only list as I am from England and don’t want to give misinformation for other countries.)
Hope this helps in anyway Ruthie ~