First, what are panic attacks?
If you have any experience with panic attacks, you’re probably already familiar with the sudden, overwhelming feeling of intense fear that can arise – despite the absence of any real danger present. Sometimes this feeling results as a response to something upsetting, or sometimes it pops up out of the blue. In other words, panic attacks are triggered by our body’s fight-or-flight response. Some intense bodily sensations can often accompany them, such as a racing heart, sweating, trembling, and shortness of breath. It is not uncommon for someone experiencing their first panic attack to go the emergency room because they truly feel that something is wrong. The most important thing to know about panic attacks is that while they can be absolutely terrifying, they are not life-threatening. They are a reflection of your body going into survival mode, and despite how catastrophic they can feel, they are temporary and will pass.
Is there any way to prevent panic attacks?
As you might already know, physical and mental health are interconnected. Getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and eating regular meals are all vitally important in supporting your mental health overall. Also, try to limit your caffeine intake – since caffeine is a stimulant, it can worsen feelings of anxiety and the physical symptoms that often come with it. If you can, try to limit your coffee intake to one cup per day, or try tea instead. As well, avoid energy drinks or other stimulants that can speed up your heart rate.
While all of these tips can be helpful for some folks in preventing panic attacks and reducing their frequency, it can feel reassuring to have some tools handy for coping with panic attacks if or when they do happen. Here are some things you can try:
1. Ride the wave
Whenever you start to feel that surge of adrenaline and anxiety, accept it for what it is: your body’s response to a perceived threat. Try to remind yourself that despite how overwhelming this sense of fear may seem, you are not in any danger. Though undoubtedly unpleasant, try to ride that wave of emotion – don’t try to deny your feelings, but to accept them. Think of it like seeing a wave approaching while you’re swimming in the ocean – allow yourself to safely ride the wave all the way to shore rather than trying to swim against the current.
This one might seem obvious, but too often we hold our breath when we are anxious. Practice full-body breathing. Take deep breaths in through your nose, hold them for a few seconds, and then exhale slowly through your mouth, breathing through your belly rather than your chest. If it helps, you can place a hand on your stomach to feel it rise and fall with each breath. As you breath, try to bring your mind to a peaceful place in your memories. This technique can help to slow your heart rate and transition your body from a stressful state towards one of calm.
3. Try progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is simply a term to describe the tightening and relaxing of different muscle groups. You can start by clenching your fist for 5 seconds, really focusing on the tension you’re creating, and then relaxing the muscles in your hand. Move onto your wrists, your arms, your chest, slowly going through the whole body. A major pro to the technique is that you can do it even when you’re in a public space without drawing attention to yourself.
Other tips include turning on your “thinking brain” by doing a game or a word puzzle, drinking some water to cool yourself down, and trying to reason your way through an attack. Say to yourself, “this is making me feel uncomfortable but I can handle it, it will be over soon.” Don’t drive, and turn off your phone or other devices that may be increasing your anxiety. Perhaps try going for a relaxing walk if you’re able!
If you have repeated panic attacks that are impacting your quality of life, please seek professional help. A doctor or a counsellor can help you identify some possible causes and triggers, and give you long-term coping strategies to help provide relief.