Have you ever had a panic attack? If so, you know how terrifying they can be. I have had plenty and know exactly what they are like…torture! There is good news though. There are many ways to reduce and eliminate them. First off though, what exactly are panic attacks?
Panic attacks are the sudden onset of intense anxiety characterized by feelings of great fear and apprehension. They are often accompanied by things like rapid heart beat, shortness of breath, dizziness, feeling faint, sweating, trembling, and impending doom.
Because of their intensity, people who experience them tend to avoid public places and being around other people, typically groups of people. They also have anticipatory anxiety even in the most comfortable settings (such as their home) and worry about the consequences of a panic attack. Panic attacks won’t kill us, but they can feel like we are having a heart attack or stroke so people do all they can to avoid anything that might trigger one, which can leave one feeling completely imprisoned and very much misunderstood by others.
I have worked very hard to overcome my anxiety and subsequent panic attacks, and I have been doing well, but they were once very intense! Mine would come out of nowhere. I would get dizzy and weak, have a pounding heart like it was going to explode, claustrophobia, shallow breathing, full-body trembling, and I would lose all sense of where I was. My mind would go blank, and I couldn’t think clearly. I feared passing out. I was also self-conscious about how I looked, thinking everyone could see what I was feeling inside. For those who experience anxiety and panic, you know just what I mean. So, what do we do about it?
For me, it has been a variety of things, the first of which was understanding that anxiety is actually a normal human emotion that everyone experiences at times. Like pain and the fight/flight/freeze stress response, for example, anxiety protects us from danger. Understanding and embracing that some level of anxiety is normal has been very helpful in accepting the uncomfortable feelings.
I then began to confront my fears. I drove as much as I could. I went shopping, frequented crowded places, and talked to as many people as I could. Whatever triggered any form of fear, apprehension, and worry, I walked towards it. At first, it made me worse, but instead of running, I sat with the feelings and talked myself down. I HAD to practice sitting with the discomfort and all the other feelings to learn that I was not in danger. In panic mode, our mind was plays tricks on us. When we sit with the feelings, it slows our racing minds, and we see that none of our thoughts or feelings are truly dangerous.
The more times I repeated the things that caused high anxiety and realized that I was safe, the less anxious I became, and the panic attacks disappeared. I also took better care of my health by eating and sleeping well, listening to guided mediation, relaxation, and breathing programs, and exercising. I didn’t improve overnight. It took many months to years of dedication. One of the programs that helped me a lot is called Pass Through Panic by Dr. Claire Weekes (CD program). She also has a great book called Hope and Help for your Nerves.
At times I still feel some apprehension, fear, and worry. When it happens, I use the AWARE technique described below. It comes from the book, Anxiety Disorders and Phobias: A Cognitive Perspective, by Aaron Beck and Gary Emery.
A: Accept the anxiety. Welcome it. Don’t fight it. Replace your rejection, anger, and hatred of it with acceptance. By resisting, you are prolonging the unpleasantness of it. Instead, flow with it. Don’t make it responsible for how you think, feel, and act.
W: Watch and Wait. Look at your anxiety without judgment. It’s neither good nor bad. Become detached from it. Remind yourself that you are not your anxiety. The more you can separate yourself from the experience, the more you can view it as a third-party observer.
Even though there is a powerful urge to run away to try and escape anxious situations, postpone that decision for a little bit. Stay in the situation. Don’t tell yourself you can’t leave. Keep that option open so you don’t feel trapped, but remember that you don’t need to run away to get relief. Let relief come to you.
A: Act with the anxiety. Act as if you aren’t anxious. Function with it. Slow down if you have to, but keep going. Breathe normally. If you run from the situation your anxiety will go down, but your fear will go up. If you stay, both your anxiety and your fear will eventually go down.
R: Repeat the steps. Continue to accept your anxiety, watch it, and act with it until it goes down to a comfortable level.
E: Expect the best. What we fear rarely happens. Recognize that a certain amount of anxiety is a normal part of life. Understanding this puts you in a good position to accept it if it comes again. You are familiar with it and know what to do with it.
After years of suffering (to the point of being afraid to leave the house without someone), with more confidence, I began doing things I previously avoided like the plague. It opened my world and made life interesting and exciting again. Instead of worrying about all the bad things that might happen before I did an activity, I started to look forward to them. A huge burden was lifted, and I was living again. There are many different words people use for the FEAR acronym such as, Face Everything And Rise, False Expectations Appearing Real, Forget Everything And Run, among others. My new favorite one is, Forget Everything And Relax. If you would like to learn more about this topic and many other related topics, please see my new book, Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting the Adversity and Life Challenges.