In the last post, Rachel talked about her experience of panic disorder and accepting the reality of living with it. In this post, I explore some strategies that can support you to manage panic attacks.
Panic attacks are terrifying things. When you first experience them it is impossible to know what is happening and it feels like it might kill you. When you’ve experienced them several times – or several hundred times – you know exactly what is happening but it still feels like it might kill you. Matt Haig accurately summarises these experiences in his amazing book, Reasons To Stay Alive, like this:
Many people experience panic attacks and, whether it is a one off experience triggered by a stressful situation or a long lasting panic disorder which means dealing with them on a daily basis, knowing how to cope when in the grip of that blinding panic is no mean feat. Everyone will react and cope slightly differently but I’d like to share a couple of strategies that I have found helpful in those panic stricken moments, in the hope that they might be useful for someone else as well.
We hear often about the importance of breathing and noticing our breath in strategies for dealing with anxiety or panic attacks, but it’s not always clear what exactly that means and we (read I) often make the mistake of thinking that because we breathe all the time this is something we can just ‘do’ without much thought or practise. In reality, for breathing to be helpful in situations of stress, anxiety or panic, it’s more likely to be effective if you’ve practised. A lot. In times of calm. By practising at times when you don’t feel stressed or anxious, you train your body to know the breathing patterns and (I suspect) create an unconscious association with these breathing patterns and a sense of calm.
So here is a simple breathing exercise you can practise in times of calm to prepare for times of panic:
Breathe in slowly for 5 counts
Hold the breath for two counts
Release the breath slowly for 5 counts
Hold for 2 counts
Super simple and can be practised anywhere. Try to fill and empty your lungs on each inhalation and exhalation and breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. And practise. Often. Once you have established this breathing pattern, you can also focus your attention on the temperature of your breath as it enters and leaves your body. Focusing on this detail, along with the pattern of the breath, can be useful in directing the attention of your brain away from any negative thought patterns which can otherwise perpetuate an episode of panic.
Panic attacks have a nasty way of skewing our sense of reality. They can make our thoughts spiral into negativity and catastrophising, or make us feel completely detached from the world around us. In addition to the breathing exercise above, I have found grounding to be an incredibly useful strategy for regaining a sense of what is real and preventing myself from spiralling uncontrollably. Here’s what to do:
Either in your mind, out loud, or on a piece of paper, list the following:
- Five things you can see (try forcing your eye to notice things both nearby and further away)
- Four things you can hear (again, start with any obvious sounds and then send your hearing outwards and listen for more subtle noises)
- Three things you can physically feel (think about the temperature of the air, the feel of your clothes or an object in your pocket, and the feel of whatever surface you are standing/sitting/lying on)
- Two things you can smell (this may seem trickier but try inhaling the smell on your clothes, the air around you or a nearby object like a book)
- One thing you can taste (this is probably the hardest but you can focus on whatever taste may be in your mouth, or lick your lips and notice the taste of the skin there)
Take your time with this process and, much like the breathing exercise, it should help to redirect your thoughts away from the panic and negative spirals and towards the physical world around you, grounding you back in the reality outside your mind.
Do you have any other strategies for coping with panic attacks? Please let us know in the comments.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.
The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org
Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk
Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk
Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org
Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk
Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org
Please do not struggle alone.