I don’t remember when I had my first ever panic attack. For a while there they happened every week. That intense, overwhelming feeling of impending danger takes over you and you become completely frozen in fear. Everything around you slows down as if you’re living in slow motion. Your heart feels like it is going to beat so hard that it will actually come right out of your chest. Your breathing is so fast but you feel like you can’t catch your breath. You tremble and shake and you can’t sit down or stand up. You can’t settle, you can’t function, you can’t think. Your brain cannot comprehend logic and will not work to perform the simplest of tasks. Then you feel like your throat is closing over and death is about to take you. You’re not sure how or why but you’re nearly there. Nearly dead. And why are you feeling all of this? It may be for the simplest of reasons. The most illogical and irrational reason. Something little has triggered the greatest panic.
Driving Into Panic
For me yesterday it was driving. I’ve had trouble driving recently. It has made me very nervous. I get so anxious that I’ve taken to doing some breathing exercises before I even get into the car. It helps. However yesterday, I had an incident where I cut someone off with my car. I was being rude and ignorant and I did not let this person merge into my lane. Isn’t that a terrible thing to do?! I was driving aggressively and I was not being considerate and kind. Not my finest hour. As soon as it happened I felt the panic begin to well in my stomach. It comes up from the depths you. It rises until it reaches your throat and you feel like you will be sick. I began my breathing exercises. Breathe in 2, 3, 4, 5. Breathe out 2, 3, 4, 5. But I was still on the road and began thinking about what a terrible person I was for being rude. The panic intensified. So I began talking myself down, out loud.
“You made a mistake. That’s all. Everyone makes mistakes. You are a good person.”
I continued breathing and talking. Eventually I arrived home and rushed inside and immediately put on a guided relaxation meditation. I continued to breathe. So eventually, with hard work and conscious breathing the panic subsided. I had dodged a bullet. I didn’t get to full blown ‘I am going to die’ panic. It is frightening and overwhelming to panic. It’s an awful feeling and I often find it takes hours and sometimes days to recover. You feel so completely exhausted afterwards, like you have used up a week’s worth of nervous energy in the space of an hour or two. As a result, you continue to be on edge for so long, jumping every time there is a little unexpected noise or movement near you. You can’t relax. Everything is more intense.
What can we do about it?
Panic attacks are debilitating and overwhelming. They can happen so quickly and without warning and they can be triggered by the most inane happenings. It’s very difficult to understand how real the panic is until you’ve had a full blown panic attack for no logical reason. I’ve found that meditation and relaxation music are really powerful in the early stages of a panic attack. If you put on a guided meditation, it’s ok that you don’t follow along straight away. Your mind won’t be able to focus enough for you to visualise whatever it is they are talking you through. That’s ok. Stay with it though. It will have a calming effect anyway. If you find it really annoying, pop on some relaxation music rather than the guided meditation. It is amazing the calming effect this has on the mind.
Breathing exercises are also wonderful. Particularly straw breathing. This is where you get just a regular drinking straw and put it in your mouth and breathe in and out only through the straw. Because the straw is so small it makes you breathe very slowly. Slowing your breathing down helps to decrease the rising panic. My psychologist Alix once told me that you cannot panic if you are breathing correctly.
A Safe Place
I also find that getting to a safe and quiet place is very important. And saying to yourself “I am safe” out loud over and over is very helpful. Of course having people around you that understand your anxiety is also very important. There is nothing more comforting then a hand on your shoulder and a voice in your ear reassuring you that you are perfectly safe.
Another thing I find helpful is to do colour spotting. This is a really simple technique that brings you back to reality really quickly and stops the panic from escalating. Again, it’s important to do this in the early stages of the panic. Colour spotting is where you pick one colour, for example blue, and you say out loud all of the things that you can spot around you that are the colour blue, such as the sky, a light fitting, someone’s shirt. Once you’ve exhausted blue, choose another colour and continue. Sounds simplistic but it is really effecting at stopping a panic attack in it’s tracks.
Be Gentle and Kind
I have found that the trick to managing panic attacks is to be vigilant and prepared. Notice the early warning signs (increased breathing, rapid heart beat, uneasy feeling). Get to a safe place and practise your breathing. If you can catch panic in the early stages you can often avoid having a full blown attack. Make sure that you are practising your self care. If you are having an anxious day, maybe it’s ok to avoid the shopping centre or large crowd in a restaurant. If you’re a little on edge, be kind to yourself and stay in a safe place just for today. Attempt what is making you anxious when you’re having a good day and feel a little stronger. It’s important not to let anxiety and panic win though. Challenge it when you’re feeling strong. And breathe through it to keep it at bay. Panic attacks are strong and persistent but with a little vigilance and practise you can kick their arse!