Panic attacks feel different for everyone, but typically include sensations like a pounding heart, sweating, a feeling of terror, constricted or rapid breathing, and feeling as though the room is closing in on you or spinning. Regardless of how they present, a hallmark is that the normal things we might do to manage anxiety (deep breathing, CBT strategies, talking with a support person) often don’t work because our bodies and brains are too dysregulated to tap into those skills. If you’ve tried those things when a panic attack comes on and have been frustrated that they seem to not help, or even that they make things worse, you are not alone! Below you’ll find a few strategies that may be more successful in the midst of a panic attack, and can help get you to a place of nervous system regulation that will make it possible to tap into those other skills.
A panic attack is signaling to your brain that there is a perceived threat it wants to get away from as fast as possible. It’s often not practical to truly run from the thing that is causing intense anxiety (a test or work presentation, a social interaction, etc.) but movement helps our brain calm down by reassuring it that if we were truly in danger, we could escape if needed.
In the height of a panic attack, many people feel frozen even if their brain feels like it wants to run away. Larger movements like walking, jumping, or dancing can be the quickest way to reset the nervous system, however, many people find they are unable to do so in the moment. If that is the case for you, try focusing your energy on the smallest movement you can think of (lifting a finger or toe, wiggling in your chair, pressing your feet into the ground). Let these small movements build to larger movements to get the same calming effect and move through that feeling of being “stuck” or “frozen”.
2. Taste Something Sour.
When experiencing a panic attack, our nervous system is entirely focused on the perceived threat at hand (sometimes people report experiencing “tunnel vision”) and it can feel like our brain and body forget that anything else exists. Eating something sour (or adding surprising sensory input of any kind) can help reset your nervous system into taking stock of what else is happening outside of the threat. You’ll need to follow-up with other coping skills after, but it can be enough to pull you out of the feeling that the panic attack is never going to end. Many people find success keeping sour candies on hand, especially when you’re in locations or situations that are anxiety-inducing.
3. Lean In
This one feels counterintuitive, but for many people the quickest way to stop a panic attack is to not try to stop it at all. Anxiety heightens when we try to ignore it. Imagine there was a person telling you the house was on fire, but you repeatedly responded, “no it’s not, it will be fine”. I doubt that person would agree and move on, instead they’d probably start yelling louder and louder until you finally took them seriously. For some people, coping strategies (especially things like distraction or positive statements) heighten anxiety and make panic attacks last longer. Try to imagine the panic attack as a roller coaster or wave, and remind yourself that this is a temporary state with an end point. It doesn’t feel great while it’s happening, but many people are surprised by how quickly they can move through a panic attack this way.
It’s important to note that everyone responds to coping skills differently, and it can take some trial and error to create a toolbox of skills that work for you. These tips are meant for the immediate management of panic attacks, so if you are experiencing frequent panic attacks be sure to reach out to a therapist who can help you understand what might be triggering them and can work with you to identify strategies for long-term management.
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Have you ever wondered what’s happening in your body when anxiety and stress are triggered?
Stress and Anxiety are “fight or flight” responses, which allow us to react faster and more appropriately, depending on the situation. These have been incorporated in us for centuries; they were part of what kept us alive in the face of various predators.
Today, however, we express these responses even though the “dangers” around us are entirely different. Sometimes, as in the case of anxiety, we just “assume” the “danger” and trigger this reaction, where many symptoms come to the surface.
Physiology behind Stress and Anxiety
Our brain controls many of our organism’s responses, voluntarily or involuntarily. In principle, we perceive the warning or danger signal, the initial trigger, where our brain understands that it must prepare the body to flee or fight quickly.
In order to do so, it acts through a system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS), to which it sends a signal. This ANS is in turn divided into sympathetic and parasympathetic, which regulate different responses.
The reactions that occur in stress and anxiety have to do with the release of important hormones (such as adrenaline and noradrenaline) by the sympathetic nervous system. These products travel through our body triggering a set of different reactions that will end up “activating” it.
Now, let us quickly analyze some of the effects of this hormone in the context of a real-life scenario: an imminent danger is coming towards you (for example, a person tries to grab your purse). In this case, your reaction might be to flee. What does your body need to respond appropriately?
1) Heart rate: It must be increased to enhance the oxygen and nutrients that reach your muscles and tissues to maintain the flight response.
2) Blood vessels: Pressure must increase in the arteries and veins to improve blood flow to the muscles. This vasoconstriction is the origin of headache under conditions of stress or anxiety.
3) Lungs: In order to give more oxygen to the blood and thus reach the lungs, the airways must be widened and the breath rate increased.
4) Sweating: This is not nervousness. Under this response, your body temperature increases to improve metabolic reactions and promote other biological reactions, all these to respond better to the “danger” that approaches. Sweating is a compensation mechanism for this increase in temperature.
5) Intestine: It is time to stop everything! It is not time to eat or digest; it is time to flee from danger. Therefore, the intestinal contents are stopped, through spasms, which can cause pain.
6) Kidney: In a fear-inducing emergency, the body produces less urine in order to preserve the liquids we have. The same goes for salivary glands. Our brain isn’t sure how long the danger will last, so it goes into conservation mode.
These, and many other responses are necessary to be able to “run away” properly, and all are mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. This is part of what you suffer when you are under stress or with anxiety. They are also limited responses that only last a few minutes – if the original “dangerous” stimulus disappears” – but that may remain a little longer in people who constantly suffer from it.
Since our body responds to perceived dangers (Ex.: Worried thoughts about what someone is thinking about you) in the same way as it does to genuine physical dangers (Ex. Rabid animal), it’s up to you to communicate with your body to assist it in deescalating the threat.
Tips for Finding the Off-Switch for Stress and Anxiety
Here are some quick tips for sending signals to your nervous system that will help it deescalate:
Self-Talk: Identify the “danger” thought triggering your anxiety. See if you can talk it off the ledge. Right-size your anxiety by talking back to any over-generalization, catastrophization, mind-reading, or future-telling. Sometimes examining the facts can ease your anxiety (ex. Is the worst-case scenario really as bad as you imagine?).
Diaphragmatic Breathing: Your body’s diaphragm is directly connected to the Vagus nerve, which helps regulate the on and off switch for your sympathetic nervous system. If you breath deeply using that muscle in your belly, you’ll notice your system start to slow.
Channeling the Anxiety for the Power of Good: Anxiety gives you a big burst of energy, focused concentration, and drive. Why not use it to help you make a plan, research options, weigh pros/cons, or spur on action!
If you’d like help with stress or anxiety, a counselor with Star Meadow Counseling is available to help!
Would you like to read more of our blogs about anxiety? Check out one of the links below!
Anxiety and panic attacks are uncomfortable. Sometimes anxiety is so physically uncomfortable that people experience heart palpitations, nausea, chest pain, dizziness, difficulty breathing, or faintness. Sometimes anxiety symptoms worry someone so much that they call 911 or take themselves to the emergency room, only to be turned away after being assured that the problem is “just” anxiety.
In the counseling office, counselors often hear clients eager to alleviate and rid themselves entirely of anxiety. Certainly, relief would be nice, and some coping skills would be helpful. But what if honoring feelings of anxiety may help (in the end) to decrease anxiety? Before you say goodbye to your anxiety, consider the reasons why feeling anxious might be to your benefit.
Feeling anxiety may…
Be a catalyst for change.
People may feel persistently anxious when when something in their life needs to change. For example, if you err on the side of workaholism, burnout is a very real risk. Anxiety is your body’s way of signaling overload. It is alerting you to a need to say “no” to something on your plate. It can prompt you to challenge your list of have-to obligations.
Help you acclimate to new things.
Anxiety can be a sign that you are outside of your comfort zone. Anytime you do something new, anxiety is there to help you get your bearings, watch for “danger,” and minimize risk. Often, the more that you repeatedly experience being out of your comfort zone in a specific way, the more your comfort zone expands, and the less you need anxiety to help you be watchful.
Be self-honoring and validating.
When you tell yourself to “stop feeling anxious,” you are sending a message that there is something “bad” or wrong happening. That self-talk message can create a form of secondary anxiety– anxiety about having anxiety! These worried thoughts about the anxiety itself can increase tension (and add in guilt or shame), rather than alleviate stress. Instead, if you tell yourself that it’s okay to feel nervous or be panicked, they can begin to feel more okay with themselves and honor the good reasons why they might be anxious.
Ease a panic attack.
Most of the time, panic attacks are triggered by something stressful in your environment, then made worse by “danger” thoughts about the panic itself. Common catastrophic thoughts experienced during a panic attack include (but aren’t limited to):
“I shouldn’t be so anxious.”
“I’m having a heart attack.”
“Why is this happening again?”
“I’m going to faint.”
“I’m going to die.”
“My panic attack will never end. I can’t handle this.”
Panicked thoughts about your body’s experience of anxiety only make you more afraid. These thoughts feed your panic and make it difficult for your body to calm. In fact, how long a panic attack lasts might be somewhat in your control.If you can stop scaring yourself with catastrophic thoughts (or should-thoughts), the adrenaline from your fight-or-flight reaction will wear itself out in a few minutes.
Instead, try not to ignore what you’re feeling. Notice and feel the sensations of your anxiety or panic. Assure yourself that the feelings aren’t harmful (because they’re usually not). Don’t fight the feelings, but imagine yourself surfing them like a wave. The more you resist, the higher your anxiety; the more you accept what you’re feeling, the more quickly it can pass.
Increase Performance (at low to moderate levels)
Certainly high or persistent anxiety can be more of a hindrance than a help. However, at occasional low-to-moderate levels, anxiety prepares your body for action in a more productive manner. It increases drive, focus, clarity, strength, and stamina on intellectually stimulating tasks.
Anxiety is a normal human emotion that is safe (and helpful) for you to feel. Let yourself feel your feelings, but then move on. Anxiety has a tendency to take over if it becomes your primary focus. Stay engaged in practice of living life. A mental health counselor can help you build a customized tool box for coping (and making friends) with anxiety.
Want to read more about Anxiety? Check out these posts:
Unless you are face-to-face with a bear or another physical danger, nothing feels more terrifying than a panic attack. Many have gone to the Emergency Room fearing heart attacks, strokes, and death. With symptoms including chest tightening, throat constricting, and faintness, it’s no wonder many seek urgent medical care! When you are begging for just one deep breath, you’ll take any help you can get. (more…)