Having a panic attack can be one of the most terrifying things you will ever experience in your life, especially when you’re caught off guard. And while “helpful” people may encourage you to “breathe” or “calm down,” the last thing you tend to think about when you feel like you’re going to have a heart attack, pass out, or both, is how to breathe calmly like Buddha.
There’s good news, though: you’re not doomed to a life of misery, spent resting on a fainting couch to soothe your nerves.
Panic attacks: not just for times of panic!
Panic attacks can happen at any time -- not necessarily when you’re in a stressed or excited state. Some of the symptoms can include a feeling of impending doom, chest pain, rapid heart rate, sweating, lightheadedness, numbness, or feeling like you’re detached from the world, though these can vary depending on the person.
The fact that an attack seems to come out of nowhere is why so many people mistake it for a heart attack and wind up in the ER. (Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because medical professionals can pinpoint if the attack was just anxiety or another, more serious condition.)
“When a panic attack strikes, it can be difficult to know what to do. Most panic attacks come on so suddenly, often with no warning, and the symptoms can be frightening,” says Michelle Holmberg, director of programs at Screening for Mental Health.
Why does it feel so horrible if nothing’s physically wrong?
Your sympathetic nervous system revs up when you’re nervous, releasing adrenaline. The parasympathetic nervous system then steps in to calm you, but that doesn’t happen if it’s on the fritz, which is common for someone who’s already stressed out and on the verge of an attack. Then you have an attack, and even breathing becomes a struggle.
That’s because, during a panic attack, you breathe too shallowly, think about your breath too much, or take in too much air. Any of these can lead to hyperventilation, which is neither pleasant nor attractive. Once you reach this point, not even a Cher slap can snap you out of it.
“The tendency is to hyperventilate, which actually makes the panic attack worse,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.