Heart racing. Sudden sweating. Chest pains. Numbness in your limbs. Feeling like everything is terrible and thinking you might even die.
These are just some of the excruciating symptoms of a panic attack, which 6 million American adults who live with panic disorder experience on a frequent basis. The phenomenon is often associated with extreme anxiety, and it can be triggered by a certain situation or sometimes appear seemingly out of nowhere.
During a panic attack, the body behaves similarly as it does when faced with actual danger, according to Sanjiv Patel, a cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. Patel said that while not all panic attacks manifest in the same way, the physical response is the same: Your body tries to get up to speed with your mind.
“The sudden onset of panic attacks affects the physical body like a fight-[or]-flight response does,” Patel told HuffPost.
“Your stress hormone levels spike,” he continued, which then causes sweat and an elevated heart rate. This all primes your body to fight and run, Patel said.
While there is no way to predict panic attacks for most people, what you do in the moments following them can alleviate the effects tremendously. If you experience panic attacks, here’s what you need to know about coming down from an episode:
Change your thinking.
When you’re in the throes of a panic attack, your body is having a very intense anxiety reaction, according to Kathryn Moore, a psychologist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. It might be incredibly difficult, but Moore stressed it’s important to tell yourself that you’re OK ― even if you don’t feel like it.
“In that moment, it is common to feel as though the attack will never end, and it may even kill you,” Moore told HuffPost. “Tell yourself nothing scary is going on. Remind yourself that this has happened before and that it does end.”
By replacing the irrational thoughts with rational ones, your mind can tell your body to calm down.
“Your body thinks there is a tiger in the room,” Moore said. “So remind yourself there is no tiger.”
Try a relaxation exercise.
“If your body is having an intense response, you want to calm it down,” Moore said. She recommended doing so by practicing progressive muscle relaxation, a technique where you choose a group of muscles, tense them and then slowly release them.
For example, squeeze your hands together tightly and then let go, noticing the change between tightness and ease. Working that small group of muscles will not only change your mind’s focus, but it will help you start to relax the rest of your muscles. Start with one group of muscles and work your way around the body.
“Notice the physical change in your body and disrupt the tenseness of the anxiety response,” Moore said.
Take control of your breathing.
Panic attacks can also cause rapid breaths and dizziness. A guided meditation or mindfulness exercise can help regulate that response, and it also gives your mind something to focus on other than the panic itself, Moore said.
She suggested downloading an app like Insight Timer or Headspace, which both provide exercises that will help you take control of your breathing. Or, just practice by inhaling for a few moments then slowly exhaling. The ultimate goal is to help calm your body through really slow, deep breaths, which will send your body the message to calm the other physical effects of the panic attack, Moore added.
Keep track of what makes you anxious.
While panic attacks sometimes feel like they hit out of the blue, Moore suggested keeping a journal to keep consistent track of your anxiety so you can potentially identify any unnoticed triggers.
“Over the day, chart your anxiety. Record your activity, giving each part of your day a rating between one [and] 10, with 10 being the most anxiety you are feeling in that moment,” she said.
If you can find a pattern to your anxiety, you may be able to pinpoint what is causing your panic attacks so you can stop them in their tracks or reduce their severity, Moore added.
Develop techniques to help manage day-to-day anxiety.
It’s also important to manage your mental well-being on a micro level. According to experts, lowering stress in your life whenever possible, maintaining a healthy diet, reducing alcohol and caffeine intake and sticking to a regular exercise routine may all help keep anxiety at bay on a regular basis. If anxiety and panic attacks are interfering with your everyday life, it also might be helpful to speak with a mental health professional. The condition is highly treatable.
Bottom line, it’s important to remind yourself that you are more in control than you think. And arming yourself with the tools may help you better endure any panic-related episodes that come your way.