If you’ve never had a panic attack, consider yourself lucky. There are few things worse in life than feeling like you’re losing control over your body, like you want to scream at the top of your lungs and escape your own skin, and at the same time, desperately trying not to let anyone know that there’s anything wrong. You know you’re not really in danger. Your rational brain is screaming at you that there’s nothing wrong and to just pull yourself together. You’re embarrassed, humiliated even, and there is nothing, NOTHING you’d rather do than stop feeling the way you are at that moment. But you can’t. Your body is having a physiological response to something; often you don’t even know exactly what. Oh sure, you’ve identified the triggers: crowds, enclosed spaces, heights, etc. But you don’t really know WHY these situations cause you to have such a reaction. Your adrenal glands have flooded your system with chemicals (adrenaline and noradrenaline) which cause your heart to race, your sweat glands to go into overdrive and your breathing to become more rapid. There’s no real danger in front of you, but you feel as though you need to run for your life. And you’re the only one in the room that feels that way. But you’re not alone. Millions of people experience panic attacks every day, and that number seems to be rising. But what exactly is fear? And what can we do about it?
There are two kinds of fear: emotional and physical. You can experience the two together, or each separately. An example of purely emotional fear is when you want to do something, like write an article, but aren’t sure if it’s going to be good enough. It’s generally a fear of something in the future. This kind of fear is relatively easy to push through. You can acknowledge the fear, but write the article anyway.
A purely physical fear would be in response to situation that is actually dangerous – someone threatens you physically or your tire blows out while driving. Your body’s fight or flight mechanism kicks in, the proper chemicals flood your system allowing you to react faster and diverting all of your attention and energy to the task at hand: getting out of danger. This kind of fear response is necessary for survival, which is why it comes on with such fierce intensity. Your body is literally responding to a life-threatening situation.
The kind of fear that causes anxiety disorders, however, is an emotional response which is causing the physical fight or flight mechanism to engage, even though there is no actual danger. Because you’re dealing with an actual physical response (the chemicals have been released), you can’t just push through the fear. You have to deal with it. In Part II of this series on Fear, we’ll discuss the energetic roots of fear and anxiety. In this article, however, I’d like to focus on what to do when you find yourself having a panic attack, or are with a person who suddenly experiences intense fear.
If you are having a panic attack:
- Understand that what you are feeling is real. You are not imagining this and you are not crazy. Your body is actually having a physical response to what it has perceived as a dangerous situation. The sensations are intense and very frightening, but they will ultimately not hurt you.
- Control your breathing – breathe deeply. If you are at all able to do so, hum to yourself or sing. Singing will help to control your breathing, which will help to dissipate the symptoms you’re experiencing.
- Try to remove yourself from the situation. The embarrassment of others finding out that you’re panicking can add to your anxiety, so try to go to a quiet place, bathroom, outside, any place that you can be alone. This won’t stop the attack, but it will diminish the added anxiety you’re feeling.
- If you can’t or don’t want to remove yourself from the situation, identify potential escape routes. If you’re on the subway, for example, tell yourself the next stop is coming up and you can then leave the subway if you want to. On an elevator, the doors will open soon and you’ll be able to walk out. At a party, acknowledge that the door is right over there, and that you can walk out any time.
- Distract yourself. If you’re on a plane, for example, read or listen to music. If you can re-focus your thoughts onto something specific, something that makes you feel good, you can stop the attack.
- Ride it out. The chemical reaction you’re experiencing cannot last forever. It is meant to be a short term burst, to help you get out of danger. But you cannot stay in a panicky state for very long. Your body begins to produce other chemicals to counter this reaction. As they take effect, the methods above will become easier. Remind yourself that the panic attack WILL EVENTUALLY STOP.
If you’re with a person who is having a panic attack:
- DO NOT touch them (unless they ask you to). Your initial reaction may be to hold them and comfort them in an attempt to make them feel safe. When a person is panicking, however, they are in sensory overload. Their body is no longer able to filter out sounds, smells, sights and sensations and anything you do to add to this will increase the suffering.
- DON’T make a big deal about it. A person who is experiencing a panic attack is additionally worried about the humiliation of everyone around them finding out. You can ease this additional anxiety by keeping quiet and not drawing attention to the situation.
- DO speak in a soothing voice and reassure them that they are safe.
- DO try to get them out of the situation into a more private space.
- DO assure them that you do not mind waiting with them, that it’s no big deal, that they have no need to be embarrassed.
If you or someone you know is suffering from Panic attacks or anxiety on a regular basis, there is definitely a reason. In Part II, I’ll describe the energetic roots of fear, and how you can begin the healing process.