Shaheen Bhatt has always been vocal about her mental health struggles. In the past, she has talked about depression and anxiety, and how she has had to deal with particularly dark and harrowing episodes ever since she was a child.

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On her mental health platform ‘Here Comes The Sun’, the writer had a deep conversation with singer-songwriter Ananya Birla, wherein they discussed their panic attack episodes and how they dealt with them in the past.

Shaheen, who is the older sister of actor Alia Bhatt, said that she had not had a panic attack episode in over seven years, and then she had one recently, which made her feel like she was going to die.

WebMD defines panic attack as involving “sudden feelings of terror that strike without warning”. “People experiencing a panic attack may believe they are dying or going crazy. The fear and terror that a person experiences are not in proportion to the true situation and may be unrelated to what is happening around them,” it states.

Shaheen described her experience as somewhat similar. She told Ananya, “I had my first panic attack in seven years, just a month and a half ago. And I had completely forgotten how to deal with them, because I hadn’t had one for so long.”

She added that at one point in her life, she was experiencing panic attacks “really regularly” and she had, therefore, “figured out a system”. “But, this time I was… it completely took me by surprise,” she said of her latest bout.

“The thing with a panic attack is, it feels like you are dying… you don’t realise that it is just panic, or this is just [the] nervous system going into overdrive, which is what it is,” the 33-year-old said.

She told Ananya that when she had her recent panic attack, she managed to remember certain things in order to feel less stressed. “The first thing I do is, I really focus on my breathing. I think most people are really shallow breathers. We breathe into our chest, but what we are supposed to do is diaphragmatic breathing, which is breathing into your stomach.”

She showed how she puts a hand on her stomach and inhales, and fills her body with air; it also helps her focus on something else, besides the triggering panic.

Shaheen went on to explain that she also follows the five-four-three-two-one method, which allows her to use her senses and focus on things around her. “Does that help bring you back into your body?” Ananya enquired, to which Shaheen said, “It helps ground me, I feel like it is an anchoring thing. Also, it arrests the loop [of panic] in my head.”

The writer also said that she reminds herself that it is just a panic attack. The affirmations she uses are: “I am not dying, Worst case, I am going to look a little dumb. Maybe, I am just hyperventilating.” She added that she worries she might throw up or pass out in front of everybody, but “it is not the end of the world”.

Arouba Kabir, a mental health counselor and the founder of Enso Wellness told indianexpress.com that panic attacks are usually “fear responses” that are abrupt, intense, and highly-disruptive to the individual’s capacity to function in response to the fear.

“They can occur on their own, or as part of various disordered states such as social anxiety, generalised anxiety, specific phobia, relationship issues, chronic illness, an interview or an exam,” she explained.

The expert said presentations of a panic attack may vary among Individuals and also for the same person, depending on the stressors. “The most defining sign is a gripping fear. It may leave you feeling drained out and exhausted. You can also feel you are losing control, your heart starts racing and you feel a tightness in your chest, which can cause some difficulty in breathing. You can also experience hot or cold flashes with a sense of numbness, nausea, headache, abdominal cramping or unconsciousness,” Kabir told this outlet.

She suggested that calming oneself is the mainstay during any situation involving a “sensitised emotional state”. “This can be achieved by deep breathing for a count of four, holding for five seconds and exhaling slowly in the next six seconds. This helps slow your breathing and heart rate, creating a feeling of calm.”

Kabir also suggested ‘mindfulness’, wherein you can sit/lay down comfortably, close your eyes and feel your own self, your body. “Try to cut off from the stressors so as to lower the heart rate. It can also be practised by visualisation/imagery where one can think of things that bring them peace. Positive self-talk can help transport you to a safe mental state. Even putting ice or cold items on your wrist pulse can sometimes help.”

Concurring with her, Dr Rituparna Ghosh, consultant psychology, Apollo Hospitals Navi Mumbai said the ways to work on dealing with panic attacks include:

– Lifestyle modification with regular exercises
Healthy diet and sleep
– Therapy to change the way you perceive a challenging situation and find new positive adaptive ways to work on dealing with challenges
– Medication in intense attacks
Mindfulness exercises
– Progressive muscle relaxation techniques
– Nurturing and investing on your day to day self care

Kabir said it is important to consult a doctor and seek therapy if they experience such episodes frequently.

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