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.
Is my brain broken?
Having one panic attack doesn’t mean you’re condemned to a life of mental illness, nor does it mean that you have an anxiety disorder.
“If you have one, you may never have one again,” Saltz says. If you experience panic attacks a lot, though, it’s a good idea to seek help so you can break the cycle. Panic attacks can multiply like Gremlins if you let them keep happening.
But what do I do if I feel like I can’t stop them?
A lot of people head for the booze, but that’s not exactly the smartest coping technique. It sounds simplistic, but learning how to breathe is your best bet.
You don’t have to be a yoga pro to excel at breathing. Certain techniques help your parasympathetic nervous system kick into gear when it’s not syncing with the rest of your body. This can interrupt the panic attack naturally.
Next time you’re feeling panicky, try diaphragmatic breathing. This involves breathing with the diaphragm, or belly, instead of breathing shallowly through your chest, which makes you feel like you’re going to pass out and makes anxiety worse.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Practice when lying down so you’re familiar with the technique. (As you improve, you can be in any position to use this effectively).
2. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach, between your belly button and your ribs.
3. Inhale through the nose and use the air to allow the belly to rise. You’re not just taking a deep breath, you’re moving the air down deep into your body to push your stomach out.
4. Contract your diaphragm to exhale, pushing the air out your mouth.
What if breathing isn’t doing the trick?
Other than breathing, what you tell yourself during an attack can go a long way to quell it, because the body’s responses are tied to what we think.
“Say to yourself, ‘Actually this is a panic attack, it’s not going to last more than 20 minutes, I know that actually, physically, I will be OK,” Saltz says.
Another trick is to tense muscle groups and release them, starting with your feet and legs, and moving up to your head. Saltz also recommends avoiding caffeine, and making sure you’re getting enough sleep -- those factors can help keep your body calmer in general.
What if it seems like they’re not getting better?
Look, panic attacks are scarier than The Exorcist, but they can be stopped. If things are getting more intense, talk to your doctor or a therapist.
“The earlier you treat it, the easier it is to treat,” Saltz adds.
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