Updated: Apr 17, 2019
The first panic attack I ever had was terrifying and traumatic. I was nineteen years old, and in a really bad place emotionally.
My parents had just split up, I was dating an older guy who treated me terribly, and my self-esteem was plummeting by the minute.
Not to mention, I was drinking heavily, not eating well and barely sleeping. A recipe for disaster, or at least the perfect blend to bring on a series of debilitating panic attacks!
The attack came on one morning while I was in the shower, at his place, seemingly out of nowhere. A sudden wave of dizziness, confusion and a very rapid heartbeat struck me down to my knees. I felt like I was completely outside of my body, and being attacked by an outside force. It was actually a very inside force at work, my subconscious mind, that was trying desperately to get my attention. I had been running on empty for far too long, and neglecting my emotional and psychological well-being. My body was sounding the alarm that something was not right.
Barry McDonagh, panic and anxiety expert, and creator of the life-changing Panic Away program, believes that we are far more susceptible to panic and anxiety issues when we are emotionally run down and exhausted.
It makes sense.
A panic attack is, in essence, a physiological overreaction to a false sense of danger.
The amygdala, the area of your brain that deals with memory, decision-making and emotional reactions, is responsible for your body's anxiety symptoms. The fight or flight response is a primal built-in tool that is meant to protect us if we are facing imminent danger, for example, coming face to face with a bear. People with anxiety and panic attacks struggle with the fight or flight response being activated regularly, even when danger is not present.
When we are tired, haven't eaten enough or are not well hydrated, our bodies are already exhibiting physical symptoms that mimic the sensations felt during a panic attack.
Weakness. Dizziness. Confusion. Blurred Vision. Difficulty Concentrating. Rapid Heartrate or Heart Palpitations. Fearful/ Anxious Thoughts. Feeling Of Losing Control.
Add in emotional stress, overthinking, worrying and catastrophizing, and you can find yourself in a pretty vicious cycle of unpleasant physical symptoms, that lead to panic attacks.
Generally, the fear of having a panic attack is the main trigger, and enough to keep us derailed and feeling out of control. We are afraid of feeling fear. Of feeling discomfort. Of looking like we are going crazy, in public. We are afraid of feeling like we aren't strong enough to get through the next panic attack. Or the next. So we stay inside, and slowly start limiting our comfort zone. This can become quite detrimental to our lives, as we will soon find ourselves only existing in a number of safe zones. Think of a box. Or a bird in a cage. You don't need to live that way!
The good news?
The physical symptoms of anxiety are harmless. You might not feel that way while in the midst of a full-blown panic attack at the grocery store (hi!) but it's important to remember. You aren't actually having a heart attack. Or dying. Or going crazy. The physiological effects of the fight or flight response always reach a plateau, and then start to subside. Remember, your body is actually trying to protect you, even if it doesn't seem that way!
I've had some pretty severe panic attacks in the past few months. After having virtually none for years, it has taken a toll on me, emotionally. I feel discouraged that I'm not feeling as fearless as I once was.
But, I also know that I need to approach the attacks in a fearless manner, in order for them to subside.
Anxiety doesn't have to stop you from living your life. I've somehow managed to have two babies, write a book and be a pretty nice person, while dealing with panic disorder. I have ups and downs, but I never give up the fight! You shouldn't either!
Here are some of the most valuable tips for confronting (and taming) your monkey mind:
1. Reduce Stress. I know that this is easier said than done, but seriously, you need to try! Stress, especially unnecessary stress, like negative thinking, is taking far too much of your energy. Meditate. Go to therapy. Go to yoga. Talk to a friend. Go to the gym. Take time for you, every single day, and prioritize getting yourself into a calm (or at least calmer) mindset.
2. Ask For More Fear. Sounds counterintuitive, but bravely facing your panic attacks will make them go away. When you're scared, and the fight or flight response is activated, many people run. I did. I still do, sometimes. But the truth is, if you're anxious in the grocery store, what you need to do is go to the grocery store over and over again. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or exposure therapy. It works. While you're in the midst of a panic attack, ask for more. Literally, ask to be scared to death. You'll see, with time, the frequency and severity of your attacks will diminish.
You'll also greatly increase your confidence each time you successfully ride the wave of panic. It actually becomes kind of like a game, and before you know it, you won't even be able to bring on a panic attack, no matter how much you beg for one. It's kind of like magic.
3. Be Good To Your Body. Take vitamins. Eat lots of greens. Stay hydrated. Do some exercise if you can. Body, mind and spir
it are all intertwined, and a well maintained body will help you feel better, physically, and mentally.
4. Read. Honestly, sometimes the Internet is a very dangerous place. If you're a hypochondriac (hi, again!) and get freaked out by Googling symptoms, you will be happy to hear that no one has ever died from a panic attack. I swear! If anyone was going to die, it would probably be me, so you have to trust me on this. Reading about anxiety and panic disorder will likely just give you a really good understanding of why your body is doing what it is doing. And knowledge is power.
5. Look For The Tiger. My anxiety therapist back in Canada gave me this amazing trick to combat panic attacks while in the grocery store. When I would feel a panic attack coming on in the grocery store, (my favourite place to panic, if you hadn't noticed yet!) she instructed me to breathe, walk around, and look for a tiger. Literally walk aisle to aisle looking for a vicious, dangerous tiger. Of course I never found him. You should try this the next time you feel the grips of fear taking control of you. Don't flee. Stay with the discomfort and look for the tiger. By the time you've walked around a bit, the panic will have subsided. It's my go-to metaphoric game for when I feel like I need to run.
6. No One Sees Your Panic. It might feel like all eyes are on you as you silently panic, but the truth is, no one sees what you are feeling. This has helped me tremendously when I feel overwhelmed by being in public and simultaneously melting down on the inside. Not to mention, other people are likely having panic attacks all around you, and you would never know! Solidarity!
7. Don't Isolate. Anxious folks have the tendency to withdraw from life, as their attacks make them feel scared and unable to go about their daily routines. But, do your best to keep up with life. Remember, panic attacks come and go, but shutting yourself away is never the solution. Don't let yourself live in a box. The world is meant for you to enjoy! Talk to friends, watch a million Tony Robbins YouTube videos, or message me if you need a boost. I'm here. This will pass. You got this, tiger!
Ariane Signer is a Canadian freelance writer, living in Switzerland with her husband and two sons.
For more articles about anxiety, sobriety and long-distance love, visit her blog at www.theshadowandtheshimmer.blogspot.com
To read more about her book, Things That Shine: Poems, please visit: www.arianesigner.com