Your heart is racing. Your palms won’t stop sweating. You can’t catch your breath. It feels like a weight is on your chest...like you're losing your mind...it feels like you actually...might...die. This is not the first time it has happened, and it has an all too familiar feeling. It’s a panic attack. You want to run out of the room, but you’re sitting in a meeting, checking out at the market, or riding in the car. So, what can you do?
1. When you feel it starting to happen, grab onto something near you
When our thoughts start to race in a panic attack, it is almost as if our mind is disconnecting from what is actually going on in the world right around us. Physically touching and focusing on something (your pen, your chair, your shopping cart) can help our minds readjust to our environment.
2. Remind yourself to breathe
When our anxiety is heightened, we literally stop breathing, or take such shallow breaths that our brain can’t get enough oxygen to work properly. Try slowly breathing in through your nose for five counts and out through your mouth for five counts. Taking longer, slower, breaths is the goal, so forget the numbers or the nose/mouth thing if it is not working for you.
3. Talk to yourself (in your head)
Talking yourself through the panic attack can help to guide you out of it. You may worry it is never going to end, but it will. If you’ve had a panic attack before, you know they do end. And while it can seem like it lasted forever, they typically last minutes. Your “anxiety brain” is trying to trick you by firing out thoughts that are not true and worsen your anxiety levels. So, tell yourself the truthful thoughts (it will end soon, and you are safe) as you ride it out.
The truth is panic attacks suck. They feel really awful, can be scary, and they can cause you to believe that you’re losing control of your body and mind. You are not, and you can get through it. And when you do, try to be gentle with yourself. It is ok to feel whatever you are feeling about the panic attack.
Sometimes, knowing what is actually happening in your body and mind during a panic attack and finding ways to get through it make all the difference. Sometimes, that’s not enough. If you feel like you need more support to deal with your panic attacks or the worries surrounding them, I encourage you to reach out to a therapist near you. If you're in the San Diego area and would like to schedule an appointment with me, click here. And, if you haven’t already, please talk with your doctor about your symptoms to rule out any health issues which may be a factor.
Torie Cueto, LMFT is a licensed therapist in San Diego, California. Torie provides in-person therapy in San Diego and online video therapy throughout California.