Your breath gets tight, you can’t focus and you can’t think. Oh no, oh no, oh no! It’s a panic attack. It literally feels like you are dying. Maybe you know what triggered it, maybe you don’t, doesn’t really matter now. It’s here, consuming you. So, what do you do now? Panic, right?
There are some options either in addition to panicking or instead of panicking. To understand better what those options are and why they are the best choices we should do a quick overview of what a panic attack is. There are quite a few ways to think of it, but for brevity and clarity, let’s think of it in terms of the nervous system.
A panic attack is when something triggers your nervous system into fight, flight or freeze mode. This means that the animal part of your brain is turned on high and the rational part of your brain is turned low or off. Your brain begins sending out chemical messengers that will help you run from or fight the perceived danger. This process speeds up your heartbeat, it makes your breathing get shallow and your rational brain (prefrontal cortex) turns off because it’s too slow for the kind of response time we need if we are being chased by a lion. If there was actually a lion or real danger, this would be a great response because the hyperarousal of your nervous system would turn you into a super fighter or runner.
The only problem is the definition of panic attack means that there isn’t actually a lion, but your whole body is behaving as if there is one. So, here are some options for when your body tells you something life threatening is happening and really your partner just left for milk without telling you or whatever seemingly random thing has triggered your panic. These are three steps that are generally progressive over an extended period of time that will help you have more tolerable panic attacks.
Step One: Try to notice that you are having a panic attack. This sounds simple but often our rational brain is turned so low that we can’t even see what is happening, we just feel like we are dying. Beginning to say; 'oh, this is panic attack' is a significant first step in easing our rational thinking back online. Maybe over time you can say this is a panic attack and it will end. The panic attack still plays it’s course, but there is a tiny part of your brain that can see that it is a panic attack and this is the part that we want to grow. Maybe you begin to watch it and find the patterns even as it is happening. Things like; ‘oh, I start out anxious and then I always get angry and toward the end I feel sad and guilty.’ Panic attacks have cycles and patterns. See if you can get to know your panic attacks. Begin to notice when the attack is over. Even say it out loud; ‘that panic attack is over now.’ At this point we are not trying to stop them at all. As this part of your brain grows, the watching and labeling part, it will make the subsequent steps possible.
Step Two: Change one thing. Once you have labeled your panic attack cycle, you can name it when it’s happening and you can notice when it stops, and you may be able to make some small choice during the panic attack. Still, the choice is not to skip the panic, but maybe to stand outside in the sun and wait it out, or tell your partner what that you are having a panic attack or even just say to yourself: ‘I love you just as you are.’ The small change in the panic attack cycle will not likely feel momentus when it happens, but be assured, to be able to consciously change any part of that cycle is indicative of momentous change in your brain. In the beginning you may find you can make the change sometimes and other times you can’t. Be patient, this change is slow but it is lasting. Play with change for a while. Notice how different changes affect the panic cycle, what is easy to change and what is harder. This skill and the information you gather is changing your brain. Literally, you are changing the way your brain functions and even looks in a high resolution brain scan. These changes will make the last step possible.
Step Three: More choice. In step two you have begun to exercise choice in the panic process. Now you go for more challenging choices. Some of which could get you out of a panic attack and some of which just won’t. It takes a significant amount of learning and patience to figure out what gets you into a panic attack and what can shift it. By this point you know your panic attacks, the raunchy parts and the parts that maybe even feel somewhat bad in a good way. Map out what choices you can make midpanic to make it feel a little less intense. Everyone finds different points and styles to make their panic attacks more tolerable. Some folks will be able to direct it early so it doesn’t get as bad and others find ways to dial them down midpanic.
It is impossible to say that every person who has panic attacks could someday cease to have them, but these steps can be very effective in helping us have a better panic attack. Put another way, it becomes a panic attack that is a bit more on your own terms. Imagine that getting to create some expectations and maybe even requests for your panic attacks. For most of us, panic attacks are a bit less scary and mysterious when we can name them, watch them and make requests even if only some of the time.
Gen became a grief counselor after years working in the medical profession. While on the path to becoming a nurse practitioner, she realized that the aspect of medicine she most appreciated most was supporting patients when they faced significant change and loss in their lives.
Given her first-hand experiences with loss and devastating life changes, she understands the pain, anger, and confusion that can accompany grief. Gen’s approach to grief counseling is empathic and effective. Her counseling style focuses on establishing supportive connections with clients. She has a clinical approach that helps clients become more aware of how they respond to their daily lives. Gen gives clients practical ways to address the issues compromising their well being. Check out her website at http://www.northbouldercounseling.com/