Let’s talk about panic attacks.

Have you ever felt like your heart is pounding so fast that it’s hard to breathe? Or maybe you quickly felt dizzy or lighthearted as your anxiety suddenly skyrocketed. Maybe you even felt like you were dying in the moment. Your body likely began sweating as adrenaline consumed you.

These are all signs that you were panicking, which is normal anytime we face a dangerous situation. But did you also know that panic attacks can occur even in the absence of danger?

Panic attacks are sudden, intense waves of significant fear or very high-level anxiety with or without the actual presence of real danger. Sometimes they may be triggered by specific situations. For example, if someone has a phobia of flying, they may experience a panic attack when arriving to an airport. Other times, panic attacks may occur randomly without a trigger. For example, sometimes people experience panic attacks simply because they have a biological predisposition to neurotransmitters in the brain that elicit feelings of panic. Worry is our brain’s way of trying to protect ourselves from perceived threats. When our worries become too intense, or when we find ourselves suddenly absorbing a great deal of worry all at once, a panic attack usually occurs.

Specifically for people who have experienced past trauma, panic attacks may occur throughout the lifespan. It makes sense that someone would panic during a traumatic event, but why do some trauma survivors also experience panic attacks throughout their lives? This is often because the traumatic incident created a new way for your brain to operate. Panic attacks are certainly unpleasant, but there are many ways to cope with them. Below are strategies that you might find helpful.

Remember that it will pass: During a panic attack, remember these feelings will pass. Although panic attacks can feel incredibly scary, the panic itself does not cause any physical harm. This is helpful to remember especially when we find ourselves panicking during a normal day when we are not faced with any real danger. We must remember that our feelings are valid — and the panic attack is very real — but we must also acknowledge that panicking is not going to harm us. 

If needed, ask people in your support system if they will allow you to text or call them during a panic attack. Tell them in advance that you might need help remembering that a sudden panic attack will pass. Help the people closest to you understand in advance that panicking is a brief period of concentrated anxiety that will be over soon. Utilizing their support can also help you feel less alone during a panic attack, which may in itself help you move through the panic more quickly.

Focus on your breathing: During a panic attack, try to focus exclusively on the air coming in and out of your lungs. It can be helpful to shut out everything happening around you and simply focus on feeling the air enter your body through your nose, traveling to your stomach and diaphragm, and then back up and out. 

Remember that your mind is likely to wander in different directions as you try to focus on your breaths, but that is perfectly OK. It is not necessary to force your mind to be completely still. Allow your mind to wander wherever it may go, but always bring your attention back to the air traveling in and out of your body. Take as long as you need.

Notice your surroundings: It can also be helpful to look around at your surroundings and notice what you see. Consciously try to shift your attention away from the panic attack and start to notice the things around you.

Visualize being in a safe place: When we are experiencing a panic attack, we feel unsafe. Whether or not there is real danger present, the feeling of not being safe is real. Try to imagine yourself sitting in your favorite safe place. This should be a place where you have previously experienced significant calm and relaxation. 

If you have questions or if I can be a resource for you, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Your mental health matters.

Lauren Presutti is a mental health therapist at Transitions Counseling Services in Greenville.

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