Panic attacks. Your mind races, your breathing is shallow, your chest feels tight, your head is swimming.
Panic attacks are common for people with anxiety or panic disorders, but the truth is they can happen to anyone. They are overwhelming, they are physically draining and they are scary. Panic attacks can look different for different people. Some people panic quietly. From the outside they may seem fine but their thoughts are racing, their breathing is difficult and they are frozen in place. Others cry or sob loudly, hyperventilate or shake.
Here's what a panic attack might physically look like:
· Heart racing
· Difficulty breathing
· Tightness in the chest
· Shaking or trembling
· Hot flashes
· Muscle tension and aches
· Dizziness or faintness
I’ve had a few panic attacks lately. It might just be an overload of emotions since a lot of good things have been happening recently. It could be the comedown after strong positive emotions. Despite the success and progress I’m experiencing, I still live with mental illness.
For me, panic attacks freeze me in place. I cry and shake, my muscles tense up, my breathing quickens and becomes shallow. I don’t even know what I’m feeling emotionally in those moments, I just know what I’m experiencing physically.
Despite the intensity of panic attacks, there are ways to mitigate the symptoms. One way to handle a panic attack is to address the physiological symptoms. Because our bodies react so strongly during an attack, we can use certain strategies to counter this. One example is using an ice pack. The shock of the temperature change addresses both the sudden increase in body temperature and gives our nervous system a shock, bringing it back to the present moment.
To address psychological symptoms, one thing we can do is use a grounding exercise. For example, use your 5 senses to list things around you in that moment. List 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. For example, “I can see that man’s red shoes. I can touch the thick knit of my sweater. I can hear a bus in the distance. I can smell the rain. I can taste the gum in my mouth.” Focusing on these simple facts and engaging all your senses will bring you back to the moment and help ground you.
If someone around you is having a panic attack, remain calm. Use their name to address them. If they are able to speak, ask them what would be the best way to help them. If you can provide ice or an ice pack and they are open to it, do so. If they are someone you are close with and you’ve asked for consent, holding them tightly can help as well. This again affects the nervous system.
Someone doesn’t choose to have a panic attack, nor are they exaggerating or overreacting. Be kind, be compassionate and help if you can.