Panic Attacks De-mystified
Why panics occur
The first panic attack can be terrifying. It appears to come out of the blue and we don't know what it is or why it is occurring. Understanding what is going on demystifies the panic habit and provides a route to managing it.
They start… usually as a delayed response to a period of intense or prolonged stress: to how we have been handling everyday stressors, adjusting to significant life changes, and dealing with our emotions. They often begin some months after the stressful period, just when we thought we had put it all behind us.
Imagine a glass of water - half full - that's a typical person's stress-level. As long as it doesn't overflow we feel we are coping - even if, in reality, the level is a bit too high. But when things happen too fast, one after another, our coping ability gets a bit frayed and the 'glass' overflows. That's the panic experience.
They are maintained… by our fear of them. Even when the cause of the glass 'overflowing' has passed our fear of another panic prevents the level dropping - we're into the panic habit! The level of water is right up to the rim and is maintained there by our fear of having a panic attack.
What to do about them
Remain very clear about what is going on. Remind yourself frequently that (1) they are a delayed response to a stressful period, (2) that fearing the next attack makes it more likely to occur and (3) there's nothing wrong with you - panics are very common and can be eliminated by practical self-help methods.
Look after your adrenal glands. Panics are largely a fear of the effects of excessive adrenaline!
Get some 'wins' to boost your confidence in your ability to eliminate them. Panics are very undermining of self confidence so each little success will boost your flagging self confidence.
- Eliminate caffeine. Each coffee, cola, or tea drink causes a release of adrenaline and adds to the anxiety and jittery feelings. (Reduce caffeine very gradually over a period of about two weeks. Eliminating this powerful drug too quickly will produce uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.)
- Reduce sugar-rich foods. They indirectly re-activate your adrenals. For the same reason eat small amounts of food frequently and ensure you do not get hungry.
- Sip water or eat small amounts of fruit to keep your mouth moist - a dry mouth sends a 'fear' signal to the brain.
- Use relaxing breathing methods hourly. Panic is usually accompanied by mild to severe hyperventilation. The breathing methods will help reduce this and will calm you.
- Regain the ability to relax deeply. At first this will be a little difficult since you are likely to be like a coiled spring so aim for three or four sessions of 3-5 minutes each. Get this up to about 10 minutes after a few weeks. (A good relaxation tape will be helpful but listen to some of it before you buy as many of them sound dreadful.)
- Sort out your thoughts. Use pen and paper to get your thoughts on paper at least once a day. Just get a few sheets of paper and start writing. Keep the pen moving. Write everything down as it pops into your mind. When finished destroy the notes. (This technique is fully explained on our Writing Freely page).
- Keep physically active. Exercise such as swimming or brisk walking helps get rid of accumulated stress hormones and physical tension.
- Monitor your self-talk to avoid too much negativity. Some negative thinking is understandable - it's an uncomfortable period you are going though. (More on self-talk)
- Replace negative self talk with affirmations such as "little by little I am learning to manage these episodes and to get myself back to normal".
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