Coping with panic attacks
Feelings of panic are common. Nearly everybody has felt overwhelmed by slight fear or apprehension at one time or another. But for some people this can begin to occur quite often and for no apparent reason. If 'panic attacks' are preventing you from being able to do the things that you want to do, or are making your normal life difficult, then it may help to learn more about them and how to control them.
One aspect of being panicky is usually a feeling of being unable to control your reactions. But with some practice at methods of managing these feelings it is possible to become effective at controlling a panic attack. Once you are no longer frightened of being unable to cope with a panic, it becomes less likely to return in future.
What is a panic?
Panic feelings are simply an exaggeration of the body’s normal reaction to a fearful situation. One way to think of them is as the body giving a false alarm. Think of what happens if you have a near miss in a car accident. Or consider how you would react if you thought you heard a burglar in the house at night. Your heart would pound, your palms would feel clammy, and you might feel a knot of fear in your stomach. If you were going to an interview for a job, you might have butterflies in your stomach and your throat might feel dry. These are examples of the body’s fear reactions. They are normal and useful because they gear us up for action.
Although they are not pleasant feelings, we usually know why they happened and we calm down again once we know everything is fine. The problem comes when the fear reaction happens for no apparent reason. To experience intense feelings of fear without knowing why can be very worrying indeed. If you don’t understand what is happening, it is quite easy to imagine these are signals that there is something seriously wrong with you. But all that has actually happened is that your normal fear reaction has become oversensitive.
Why do panic feelings happen?
Fear reactions do occasionally happen for no good reason. This is perhaps more likely if you are very tired or under a lot of stress. However, the main thing that makes a panic is not the fear reaction itself. After a fright in a car, you calm down; you know the danger is over. The difference in a panic is that you worry a lot about the feelings. Instead of telling yourself that you are safe now, you wonder what is wrong with you. You may also begin to wonder about what will happen to you in the long term, or whether you will ever get better; these are very frightening thoughts. They actually keep the panic going and make it worse.
Once you have had a panic, you will probably be worried about the possibility of it happening again. You will be on the lookout for slight changes that may indicate something amiss. In fact you become an expert at detecting the normal changes in your body, which are usually ignored. Of course, once you begin to imagine that something may be wrong, you become a bit frightened, triggering the body’s fear reactions anyway. This vicious circle quickly builds up into another panic!
You might understand from this that the greatest part of what makes up a panic is the fact that your thoughts get out of hand and run away with you.
Can panic feelings harm you?
No. No one can die of fright and panic attacks cannot send you mad, although temporarily you may feel unlike yourself. Though panic feelings are unpleasant they cannot in anyway harm you or damage vital organs. The feelings themselves are quite normal. It is just that they are happening in an ordinary situation rather than in a dangerous or frightening one.
Guidelines for handling panic feelings
It is important to understand what is happening to you. Understanding your reactions better is half the battle. Take the trouble to read these notes several times over and then try to remember the following points:
- Panic feelings are common.
- They are caused by a combination of a) the body reacting to an ordinary situation as if it were frightening, and b) your thoughts about it running away with you.
- There is no real need for fear any more.
- Panic feelings do not indicate that there is anything seriously wrong with you.
- Although the feelings are unpleasant, no harm can come to you.
What to do if you have a panic
- Try to stay where you are if possible.
- If you cannot stay, do not leave in a hurry but walk slowly and find a quiet place to stop and concentrate on reducing panic feelings.
- Practice at coping with panic feelings is an important part of overcoming them. Use the following as an opportunity to practice.
- Read through the list of important points about panics. Reassure yourself that there is nothing terrible about to happen.
- Accept the feeling of fear and just give yourself a little time to calm down and allow the feelings to die away naturally. Try not to fight them.
- Then concentrate on your breathing for a while. Try to lower your rate of breathing so that you are breathing slowly and calmly, at a rate of about 11-12 breaths a minute. Try to use your stomach muscles (diaphragm) and not your chest.
- Practice relaxation and just let go of the tension in your muscles.
- This should go a long way towards occupying your mind and diverting it away from frightening thoughts. However, if after all this, you find you are still increasing the fear by dwelling on frightening things, try to concentrate on what is going on around you. Describe your surroundings to yourself in as much detail as possible to distract yourself.
- When you are feeling better, continue with what you were doing. Try to slow down and continue calmly. If you are out do not rush home. Practice in coping with your panic feelings in this way will greatly increase your confidence in your ability to manage in the future.
If you are a member of the public and have found our advice guidelines useful or comforting, please consider making a donation to support the work we do. Every contribution helps a victim to become a survivor.