Dealing with Panic Attacks

Oh hello, Panic, nice of you to drop by.

So, right now, you’re in the midst of an anxiety attack. Good thing you bookmarked this page for such an occasion; this is one you can come back to as often as you need.

Breathing easy is a challenge, to say the least. As far as your  body  is concerned,  the  world  is ending,  you’re  in danger  and  your  caveman  instincts  want  to get you the hell out of Dodge. You don’t know why this is happening. You felt absolutely fine two minutes ago and, as far as you can see, there is no knife-wielding axe murderer in your vicinity.  You’re petrified that your mind has the  power to yield this kind of influence  over your body. Why can’t you get it together? Why has your fight-or-flight response been triggered when you’re sitting on your couch?  More thoughts like this continue to flood your mind, serving only to worsen the feeling.


Now is not the time for analysis

We can do that later when you’re feeling better.  This is the time to get you back to basics.

Firstly. Breathe.  Breathe in for a count of four (from your belly, not your chest), hold for a count of four and release your breath over a count of four. Do it again. And again. If you can, resist the urge to exhale your breath forcefully by slightly tightening your throat so that the breath comes out slowly. You should hear a slight whooshing noise. This is the Ujjayi breathing technique and it’s very effective (more details on that in the book).

Secondly.  Stop trying to resist the feeling of panic.  Stop trying  to  (internally)  run  as  far  away  from  yourself  as possible. Close your eyes (if you can) and let it happen to you. ‘Come at me, do your worst’, is something I got used to saying. You are stronger than panic.  Surrendering to your feelings of panic will instantly dissipate them; it’s the resisting that makes it worse.

Inhale confidence.  Hold for four. Exhale anxiety slowly.

Hold for four.

Thirdly (and by now it’s probably already been and gone). Accept that it’s happened. You’ve had a panic attack, yes, but nobody died. You can’t go back in time and erase the experience, but you will get better and better at minimising it, should it arise again. You’re okay, there is no harm done and nothing bad is happening to you, nor will it happen to you as a result of a panic attack. Your body is trying its best to protect you but it’s gone a little overboard (I know, that’s putting it more than mildly).

Again. Nice, long, slow breaths.  Do this for as long as you like, and then come back to me.

You’re back. Feel better?

I’ve been there.  You can’t quite  appreciate the  weight of a panic  attack,  or its ability to completely  throw  you off course  for the rest of the day, until you’ve felt it yourself. In my experience, panic attacks happened quietly on the inside – think of a duck gliding along the water looking as cool as a cucumber, meanwhile its legs are flapping frantically below the surface.  Nobody around me would have suspected a thing. Instead  of the  need  to breathe into a brown  paper   bag,  the  apex  of  my  anxiety  manifested  itself as a burning  fire that  flooded my body. One time, I actually thought I was having a burning, allergic reaction to something. I wasn’t. My panic attacks didn’t last very long –they never do – but they were horrendous enough to leave me reeling long after they’d finished.

On a physical level, what’s happening is this: your mind is under pressure, your thoughts are  spiralling, through  no fault of your own, and your body assumes it’s under threat. It triggers your fight-or-flight response and, because there’s nothing to flee from and nothing to fight, the combination of adrenaline and cortisol (the hormones you’ve been designed to release as a survival mechanism) just explodes inside you. No fun but, on a physical level, there’s no harm done.

Give yourself a break

Finally, give yourself a break. This is the part that really got me. It wasn’t so much the  panic  but the aftermath,  when I’d cry and obsess over the  fact that  it had  happened at all, coming to the conclusion that I’d just taken ten massive steps backwards. I hadn’t, and neither have you.

Now that your breathing and heart rate have returned to normal, do not beat yourself up over the fact that you had a panic attack. You’re not losing it, you’re not weak, you’re not choosing to do this to yourself. Be as nice to yourself as you would be to a friend who’s just had a wobble. You’d wrap your arms around them and just let them feel however it is they feel. Think of your body as an overprotective but well-meaning parent   who just really wants to keep you safe. Don’t berate it. Reassure it. You are okay, you appreciate its efforts to shield you from impending doom, but there’s nothing to fear.

Examine the steps

In the next step, you need to look at the various vulnerability factors that contributed to this momentary  rise in anxiety. This always helped me to understand why I might have experienced a particularly bad wobble.

º Are you overworked or overtired?

º Have you been feeling stressed out for a while?

º Are you under pressure to be feeling good right now?

º Are you under the weather?

º Are you upset about something?

º Are you hungover?

º Have you been eating a lot of sugar?

º Are there a lot of stimulants in the mix, e.g. coffee?

Now you need to deal with your body physically – for now, no alcohol, no caffeine, no sugar, no unnecessary stimulation of the nervous system, no more analysis. It’s time to reset and soothe your parasympathetic nervous system.

It’s in dealing with the aftermath that you’ll learn and improve the most.

Instead  of pressuring  yourself to not have a panic  attack – for some people  this idea is enough  to give them  one – focus your efforts on the  restoration of your equilibrium, post-event.  Eventually, the fear will simply go out of the experience because   you’ll become really familiar with the unthreatening outcome, and,  thus,  the  tendency to panic in the future will subside. In fact, I’d almost be glad it happened, if you can push yourself that far. In an ideal world, we’d never have to feel  that  way, but  many  of us do at some point  in our lives. Think of it instead as just another experience that you’ve survived and one that you can learn from.


An extract from Owning It: Your Bullsh*t-Free Guide to Living with Anxiety by Caroline Foran, available from bookshops and as an ebook. For more information visit carolineforan.com