One thing I most appreciate is when I get to help people change their relationship with their panic attacks. The reality is that we can’t always make them stop. Sometimes our best bet is to learn how to get through them better. I wrote this because I and so many people I love know what it’s like to suffer from panic attacks. I hope to help diminish both the suffering and taboo of panic attacks.
This is how it starts for me. My breath gets tight, I can’t focus, and I can’t think. Oh no, oh no, oh no! It’s a panic attack. It literally feels like I am dying. Maybe I know what triggered it, maybe I don’t; it doesn’t really matter now. It’s here, consuming me. So what do I do now? Panic, right? There are some other options in addition to panicking or instead of panicking.
What Is A Panic Attack?
To understand better what those options are and why they are the best choices, we should do a quick overview of what a panic attack is. There are quite a few ways to think of it, but for brevity and clarity, let’s think of it in terms of the nervous system. A panic attack is when something triggers our nervous system into fight, flight, or freeze mode. This means that the animal part of our brain is turned on high and the rational part of our brain is turned low or off.
What Happens During a Panic Attack?
Our brain begins sending out chemical messengers that will help us run from or fight the perceived danger. This process speeds up our heartbeat, it makes our breathing get shallow, and our rational brain (prefrontal cortex) turns down/off because it’s too slow for the kind of response time we need if we are being chased by a lion. If there was actually a lion or real danger, this would be a great response because the hyperarousal of our nervous system would turn us into a super fighter or runner or enable us to hide in stillness. The only problem is the definition of panic attack means that there isn’t actually a lion, but our whole body is behaving as if there is one.
Where to Be The Change
Here are some options for when our body tells us something life-threatening is happening and really our partner just left for milk without telling us or whatever seemingly random thing has triggered our panic. These are three steps that are generally progressive over an extended period of time that will help us have more tolerable panic attacks.
Step One: Try to notice that we are having a panic attack
This sounds simple, but often our rational brain is turned so low that we can’t even see what is happening; we just feel like we are dying. Beginning to say, "Oh, this is a panic attack" is a significant first step in easing our rational thinking back online. Maybe over time we can say, "This is a panic attack, and it will end." The panic attack still plays its course, but there is a tiny part of our brain that can see that it is a panic attack, and this is the part that we want to grow.
Maybe we begin to watch it and find the patterns even as it is happening. Things like "Oh, I start out anxious, and then I always get angry, and toward the end I feel sad and guilty." Panic attacks have cycles and patterns. If we can get to know your panic attacks, this fundamentally changes our perspective of the experience. We begin to notice when the attack is over. Even say it out loud: "That panic attack is over now." At this point, we are not trying to stop them at all. As this part of our brain grows — the watching and labeling part, the observer — it will make the subsequent steps possible.
Step Two: Change one thing
Once we can name it "panic attack" when it’s happening and we can notice when it stops, then we may be able to make some small choice during the panic attack. Still, the choice is not to skip the panic but maybe to stand outside in the sun and wait it out or tell our partner that we are having a panic attack or even just say to yourself: "I love you just as you are." The small change in the panic attack cycle will not likely feel momentous when it happens, but be assured, to be able to consciously change any part of that cycle is indicative of momentous change in our brain.
In the beginning, we may find that we can make the change sometimes and other times we can’t. Be patient; this change is slow but it is lasting. Play with change for a while. Notice how different changes affect the panic cycle; notice what is easy to change and what is harder. This skill and the information we gather is changing our brain. Literally, we are changing the neural connections and therefore the way our brain functions. It even looks different in a high resolution-brain scan. These changes will make the last step possible.
Finally, Step Three: More choice
In step two, we started to exercise choice in the panic process. Now we go for more challenging choices, some of which could get us out of a panic attack and some of which just won’t. It takes a significant amount of learning and patience to figure out what gets us into a panic attack and what can shift it. By this point, we know our panic attacks. We know the awful parts and the parts that maybe even feel somewhat bad in a good way. By becoming familiar with our panic attacks, we will know what choices we can make mid-panic to make it feel a little less intense. Everyone finds different points and styles to make their panic attacks more tolerable.
Some folks will be able to direct it early so it doesn’t get as bad, and others find ways to dial them down mid-panic. It is impossible to say that every person who has panic attacks could someday cease to have them, but these steps can be very effective in helping us have more tolerable panic attacks. Put another way, it becomes a panic attack that is a bit more on our own terms. Imagine getting to create some requests of our panic attacks. For most of us, panic attacks are a bit less scary and mysterious when we can name them, watch them, and make even small requests, if only some of the time. May we all know our panic attacks and find some space for choice.
Gen practices at North Boulder Counseling in Boulder, CO. She focuses on major transitions and anxiety, giving clients of all ages practical ways to address the issues compromising their well-being. She has a present-centered approach that appreciates the complexities of life. https://www.northbouldercounse...
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