I experienced my first panic attack when I was at university in 2012. I was having a really tough time being away from home and was talking to my boyfriend on Skype about it. I was becoming increasingly panicked, my skin tingling, the room spinning, me feeling fainter, and fainter. But I never actually classed that experience as a panic attack until now, I just thought I was feeling a little unwell.
It wasn’t until years later that they became a regular thing that I realised what was happening. And if you’ve ever suffered with them too, I feel your pain.
The experience can be debilitating, rendering you a useless mess until the attack eventually passes – and I promise, it does. It was my CBT therapist that helped me come to terms with my feelings of panics and my random attacks, I began to realise what I’d been experiencing.
WHAT IS A PANIC ATTACK?
A panic attack occurs when your body experiences a rush of psychological and physical symptoms. Everyone’s experiences of a panic attack are different, and my physical and psychological symptoms can be entirely different to yours.
For me, I know I’m about to have an attack when my skin starts to feel tingly, and my body starts to become hotter. I often start trembling, or crying and I can feel the surge of adrenaline and fear sweep up from my toes into my throat.
Sometimes I also experience muscle spasms, especially when I’m lying down. But I’ve also experienced other things too, including heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating and the feeling that I’m being choked.
Having a panic attack is incredibly scary, but you need to remember… they aren’t dangerous. Although in the midst of it it may feel like you’re about to drop dead any second, try and find comfort in the fact that they will pass.
SO, HOW DO I COPE WITH A PANIC ATTACK?
By no means do I have my panic attacks under control. But with help from my therapist, and various self-help books, I’ve been able to give myself some sort of understanding of what’s happening to me. I’ve basically equipped myself with the weapons to fight my panic attacks head on.
Step 1: Turn your panic attack into a positive
I know this is incredibly hard to do, but my therapist taught me to look at a panic attack as a positive. Think of a panic attack as your body trying to protect you.
That weird surge of fear and anxiety you feel is adrenaline being released into your blood. Back in the day, this adrenaline was pumped into our body to help us ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ against a threatening object.
But now, although we don’t have anything with claws and teeth to fight against, our body’s natural defence system still releases this adrenaline when it feels as thought it’s in a threatening situation.
So when you begin to get panicked about something, whether it be an uncomfortable social situation, a phobia or just negative thoughts, your body sends false alarms to your nervous system, warning that you’re in danger. Subsequently this causes your body to experience all those weird symptoms.
The adrenaline pumping round your body can cause those heart-attack-like-palpitations, while some people’s digestive system even stops working properly, causing some of us to suddenly really need the toilet.
What ever situation that has caused you distress your body is trying its damned hardest to protect you from it. So try and thank it… although there’s no need for it to behave that way, it’s just trying to look out for you.
Step 2: Don’t fight the attack, embrace it
If you have a panic attack it’s quite common to suddenly feel the need to remove yourself from the situation. But try and find comfort in the fact that a panic attack will pass.
It has done it before, and it will again. Even though in the heat of the moment you can’t see it ever ending, it will eventually. So try and ride it out.
If you can feel a panic attack brewing try not to flea the situation and instead face your panic attack head on. By doing this, you’re showing yourself that nothing bad is going to happen.
I like to say ‘You’re OK, it’s just a panic attack,’ out loud. If I’m in bed, I often sit up with my feet on the floor. I don’t know why, but having that sudden connection with the cold floor and my bare feet makes me feel a lot calmer.
Step 3: BREATHE, BREATHE, BEATHE
Find a go-to breathing technique and stick with it. But make sure those breathes are slow and steady. In through the nose, out through the mouth counting from one to four each time.
My therapist taught me a technique here called Present Moment Focus (PMF).
The basics of PMF is basically all about ‘living in the moment.’ Rather than letting yourself get caught up in anxious thoughts and panicked behaviour, root yourself completely in the moment.
An example of this is if you begin to find yourself feeling increasingly panicked. Close your eyes and focus on something whether that be the ticking of a clock, the traffic outside or just your breathing. Focus on just that. It takes a bit of practice but if doing it properly you’ll eventually find that you can remove yourself from that spiral of anxiety you’ve got yourself caught up in.
Step 4: Recognise your symptoms
For me, this is the hardest part of overcoming panic attacks. As someone with health anxiety, I immediately freak out at any physical symptoms of a panic attack, or anxiety in general.
But it’s understandable, after all symptoms such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath and muscle spasms are all linked to horrible diseases.
But familiarise yourself with your anxiety symptoms and remind yourself when they begin to happen. I even find it useful to say: ‘It’s OK, you’re just having a panic attack,’ out loud.
Step 5: Confide in someone
I still live at home, and my mum is my absolute rock when it comes to dealing with these moments. I’m lucky that my mum too suffered with a panic disorder in her twenties, so she’s all-too-familiar with what I’m experiencing.
If after a couple of minutes I can’t calm down from a panic attack, I often wake my mum up. Just her presence in my room at 3am can immediately make me calm down.
But it doesn’t have to be your mum, and it doesn’t have to be physically getting someone in the midst of your attack. But it’s important to share your experience with someone else so you don’t feel so lonely.
Did you have a panic attack in your bathroom at work? Tell a colleague you can trust what just happened. Starting to feel panicked while making the dinner? Let your other half know what’s happening.
It wasn’t until I opened up to my CBT therapist that I had any real idea what was going on. Before then I was suffering completely alone. I was having this panic attacks in the middle of the night convinced I was dying and then the next day I’d have to wake up and pretend like nothing had happened.
It was exhausting that I was hiding such a huge part of my life from my family and friends. A part of my life that I found more manageable now that I’m honest.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, or some form of panic attack disorder, DO NOT SUFFER IN SILENCE. Please go and speak to your GP, tell your partner, open up to your parents. It doesn’t have to be like this and it will get better.