When I say ‘panic attack’, what springs to mind? If you have never had a panic attack, or have never known someone who has ever had them, you might think panic attacks consist of people breathing into paper bags, clutching at their chests, and/or fainting. In other words, the sort of things they show on movies or tv shows.
In actuality, panic attacks are generally felt, rather than seen, and their symptoms can include sweating, trembling, nausea, dizziness, chest pain, hot or cold flashes, a racing heart, fear of dying, and feeling an intense need to escape. They come along suddenly, and they last for a couple of minutes at most before giving way to what I like to call the panic attack ‘hangover’, which can last anywhere from 10 minutes to over a week. At least, this is what I have found in my experience.
I personally had my first panic attack when I was fifteen. I was working in a restaurant at the time, and my active mind was going over issues I was having with my high school friends. My breathing suddenly quickened, my hands got shaky, and a wave of nervous, hot energy ran through me. I had to stop, hold onto the nearest wall, and wait for the sensation to pass. I had a couple more attacks that year, then the friendship issues that were stressing me out stopped, and I managed not to have panic attacks again until about six years ago, when I developed an anxiety disorder that, I have since been informed, is severe. Now I have panic attacks regularly, and they are just as big a bag of laughs now as they were when they started.
As horrible as my panic attacks continue to be, over the years I have created a helpful plan of action for taking care of myself when I am having one. I cannot say that any of these steps will definitely work for you, but I invite you to give them a try if you believe they will be helpful.
First: When the panic attack happens, stop, close your eyes, and take a deep breath.
I cannot stress enough the restorative powers of ceasing all movement, purposely taking away one of your five senses, and filling your lungs as completely as possible. My panic attacks are a sensory overload; my mind is going at a million miles a minute, fixating on some things, trying to remember other things, and trying to stop yet other things from coming to the forefront. With that much going on in my head, the last thing I need is yet more stuff to process. So I will stop moving (or quickly run to somewhere safe – a bathroom, a corner, a single wall, whatever), close my eyes, and focus on breathing slowly and deeply. The aim of this is to get myself through the initial attack as quickly and, ironically, calmly, as possible.
As an extra tip, I find it even more helpful if I can lie down on a hard floor. Feeling that solid ground underneath me, pressing into my calves, my back, and my shoulders, makes me feel grounded.
Second: When the attack ends, make a hot or cold drink.
Once the panic attack is over, it is time to deal with the hangover period. As I said above, this period can last for as little as ten minutes, or for as long as a week or longer. For those who have not experienced this, the hangover period is the period right after a panic attack where the person feels particularly anxious, depressed, exhausted, frustrated, delicate, confused, spaced out, or some combination thereof. I usually feel emotionally fragile during this period, in that things that I usually do not find particularly noteworthy (a random thought, a kind comment, a picture of a cute animal) can have me either laughing hysterically or bursting into tears.
When I worked for a narcissistic boss, and the frequency of my panic attacks was probably at its highest, the first thing I would do after an attack was go downstairs and make a cup of tea. This simple, routine task gave me something to do with my hands for the couple of minutes I needed to get my thoughts in order. As well as that, the taste of the tea and the feeling of the hot liquid in my mouth gave me something familiar to focus on. It sounds small, but having that tangible bit of familiarity nearby is my secret weapon for this initial stage of the ‘hangover’ period.
Third: Make a list.
If I am lucky, by the time I have completed Steps 1 and 2, both the panic attack and the hangover period are over and I can carry on. Unfortunately it does not usually turn out that way, and I need to take extra steps to take care of myself for longer.
In an ideal world, I would spend all of my hangover periods relaxing on the couch, watching cooking shows and doing endless amounts of crochet. But this is not an ideal world, and I needed to figure out a way to get through my longer hangover periods while still being productive.
I was taught about the power of lists by a friend of mine when I sent her a text a couple of days after a very bad panic attack with a very long hangover period. My friend instructed me to write down everything that I needed or wanted to do that day, and keep the list beside me. Every time I complete a task, I cross that item off the list, and if the next item along seems too overwhelming, I skip to a task that is easier to handle.
My friend’s advice was brilliant, and I have since tweaked it with one addition. After writing my list, I will look through it and cross out anything that is neither fun nor absolutely essential. If a work task can wait until tomorrow, it gets crossed off. If today’s shower can be done without washing my hair or shaving my face, that task gets simplified. I am somebody who takes pride in exceeding expectations, but when I am experiencing a panic attack hangover, taking care of myself has to be a top priority, and non-essential tasks have to wait.
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Fourth: Talk to someone about it
I will be the first to admit that I am phenomenally bad at talking to others about the specifics of my anxiety disorder. I think this comes from being reluctant to voice what is bothering me under the belief that it will make me feel worse (even though that has never, ever been the case). It is also possible that my Australian/British ‘stiff upper lip’ upbringing has ingrained in me this idea that it is better to keep quiet and power through than to burden others with your pain.
In reality, it is far worse, and potentially extremely dangerous, for us to keep quiet about our pain. So I now try to tell somebody not only that I have had a panic attack, but exactly how the panic attack happened and what it was about. Sometimes this works extremely well, as the person I have told will offer me some advice or give me some information that immediately calms me down. Most of the time, however, it is about expressing my worries and finding support. I do not know why, but it really is true that telling somebody about your burdens lightens them. At least, it does for me.
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Last: Spend some time thinking about good things
This is something I try and do all the time, but it becomes particularly beneficial when I have had a panic attack. I have a little diary in which I fill a page every day, detailing whatever good things I can think of that have happened that day. These can be anything at all, from going to a fun party to making a tasty dinner to spending time with my cats. Basically, if it makes me feel good, it goes in the diary. Then, when I am feeling fragile from a recent panic attack, I can go back through the book and remind myself of the good things that are happening in my world. As well as giving me something to think about other than whatever existential horror is going on in my head, this practice brings the good things further toward the front of my brain, which hopefully decreases the frequency of my panic attacks.
Panic attacks are terrible to experience, and getting through them relatively unscathed is tricky at the best of times. Developing a relatively easy, step-by-step process for taking care of myself during and after my panic attacks has helped me to feel better prepared for future attacks, and I would highly encourage anybody else who experiences panic attacks to be similarly prepared.
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