ScreamingI have been suffering from Panic Disorder & Anxiety Disorder for over 30 years now. During this time I have met & talked to many other people who suffer from this disabling illness.  There is almost always a cry for help – help me cope with these horrible feelings going on in my body, the horrible thoughts going through my mind.  This is taking over my life & I need help.  Many, many times I have offered suggestions that have worked for me, but it is usually a one-on-one experience & so I am only helping one person at a time.  Maybe by writing about my experience with this, I can help more people.

I grew up in a physically abusive home, so I have lived in fear for as long as I can remember.  Early in my 20’s I started experiencing panic attacks along with intermittent depression.  I had no idea what was happening to me & so I sought medical help where I immediately was put on tranquilizers.  I may have received some counselling.  I went through cycles of this for the next 15 years or so.  At that time I developed chronic depression complicated by severe panic attacks (up to 20/day) & generally I could barely cope with living at all.  So basically my life fell apart.  I was prescribed tranquilizers, mood stabilizers & anti-depressants & roped into intensive counselling.

One of the things I found was that the combination of medication & counselling was not working all that well for me at first & I was worn right out from surviving the panic attacks.  On my own, I contacted a hypnotherapist to see if I could get some extra help.  I was suffering so many panic attacks every day, for the 20 minutes or so I was under hypnosis, it was the only time I was getting some relief from my symptoms.  I learned a lot from the hypnotherapist & hopefully I can pass on some of this knowledge to you.

In a nutshell, panic attacks or anxiety attacks are the body’s fight or flight reflex kicking in.  For some people panic attacks can be symptoms of PTSD from previous trauma.  Your body is reacting to some stressor by dumping a whole lot of adrenaline into your system so if you needed to you could fight off or escape an attacker.  If you don’t need to escape an attacker, then you are left with a rapidly beating heart, a tight chest & a whole host of other rather uncomfortable symptoms all making you feel like you’re about to die!  Often you have no idea what the stressor that caused the attack was because the panic attack happens after a period of stress (at least for me).  Often panic attacks seem to come out of the blue & for no good reason.  This is part of what makes them so difficult to deal with because there is no warning.  One minute you are going about your business & the next you feel like you’re going to die.

There are many medications that can help you cope with panic attacks, but it is often a trial & error process to find the meds that work properly for your body.  What might work for me will result in no help at all for another.  Panic attacks can be accompanied by depression as the person tries to cope with the extraordinary changes going on in their body as well as in how they interact with their world.  Usually after your first panic attack, you never again feel safe to do whatever it was you were doing when you had your panic attack.  As you experience more panic attacks the things you feel comfortable doing become less & less.

But medication is only one way of coping with panic attacks.  Through long years of coping with them I have come up with some mechanisms of my own:

  1. The most important one is to realize panic attacks only last 20 minutes or so if you DO NOT FIGHT them. If you fight the attack it will last a lot longer, maybe 45 minutes to an hour.  At one time I was having rolling panic attacks for days on end (one attack after another without much break between) so it was important to get this through my head.  This was the one piece of information which most helped me because once I understood this, I could cope better during the attack, knowing there was an end in sight.
  2. During a panic attack your body dumps a lot of adrenaline into your system. It sometimes seems as if staying still would be the best way to cope, but I have found if I get up & do some pacing while in the middle of a panic attack, it helps to dissipate the adrenaline.
  3. As soon as I feel a panic attack coming on, I start talking to myself, “This is only a panic attack, you are not going to die. If you go with the flow it will be over in 20 minutes. Just do a little walking & some deep breathing.” Repeat over & over until the panic attack is over.
  4. Practice deep breathing to avoid hyperventilation.  I used to use a brown paper bag to breathe into, but they discourage this practice now.
  5. Do not project into the future or dwell on the past – try as much as possible to stay in the moment.  If you start worrying about what may happen in the future or dwell on what has happened in the past, you are inviting more stress into your body.  You want to relieve as much stress as possible.  While talking to yourself & deep breathing, look around the room.  Is there wallpaper?  What do you think of the pattern?  Look at the petals of a flower if there is one in the room.  Don’t concentrate on dust or worry about your housekeeping, take in small details you don’t ordinarily notice to keep yourself in the moment.
  6. When the attack is finishing, try relaxation techniques, like relaxing your toes, then your calves & work your way up to your head or start at your head & work your way down. Whichever works best for you. It helps sometimes if you imagine yourself in a serene place of your own choosing. My place is under a palm tree on a white sugar sand beach with turquoise water. A gentle breeze is blowing so I don’t get too hot, but the sand is warm & I burrow my body into the sand & close my eyes to have a nap.
  7. Give your body a break & if you can take a nap after your attack to allow your body to return to normal.

All of these techniques can help you ride the wave of a panic attack or multiple attacks.  However, I urge you to seek medical advice & the help of a good therapist.  My techniques are not meant to take the place of good medical care, merely some tricks I have found helpful in my past.

(pic courtesy of Microsoft clip arts)