Panic begins with a drip.
It’s like an addiction after that. You find something to get stressed about and you add on to that first drip. At first, it may be your finances. Then it’s your career. Then it’s your work. Then it’s your life. Then all those stressful thoughts begin to snowball into an avalanche.
Your mind races and lights up with all these nightmare scenarios about the absolute worst that could happen to you. Then, suddenly, the world closes in on you.
You’re in a public place (like a supermarket) or you’re in a private place (like your bedroom) and the panic takes hold of you. There’s no way out and your body reacts. Your palms get sweaty. You start to feel aches and pains you can’t explain away. Did you eat something bad? Are you going crazy? What the hell is happening? Your heart is beating faster. You can’t focus. You can’t do anything. You feel terrible. You feel like you’re dying. You feel sick, but you know you’re not sick. What is it? What’s wrong? What’s going on?
You go to the emergency room, or you go to the doctor, or you go to consult a friend. They say that there is nothing physically wrong with you.
But I felt it in my body, you think. How can nothing be physically wrong with me if I felt in my body?
And then the doctor or your friend finally explains it to you: you’re having a panic attack.
What is a panic attack?
I discussed the nature of fear in a guest post for Carol Tice a while back. I would recommend you read it first because in that article I discuss the body’s “flight-or-fight-response.” The “fight-or-flight” response is the body’s knee-jerk reaction to a trauma or an incredibly stressful situation. I went into great detail in that guest post about this physiological response, but what I will say here is that when you get a panic attack, it isn’t caused by your body—it’s caused by your mind.
Most of us, most of the time, are never really in life-or-death situations. Unless you serve in the military, live in a really bad neighborhood, or you’re in the middle of a natural disaster, most of us, most of the time, are not in danger of being attacked by a something hidden behind the nearest tree.
Unfortunately, you have a primordial mind that doesn’t quite get that yet. The more stress and the more worry you feed into your mind, then, the more your body will react in the only way it has ever reacted to a highly stressful situation (ever since it was a caveman): it will send adrenaline pumping through your body, it will make your heart beat faster and faster so that you can run as hard as you can–or fight as hard as you can–when that predator hidden behind that tree jumps to attack you.
This is, basically, what is happening to you during a panic attack. Your body has activated its “fight-or-flight” mode. Anyone who has been in a real, life-or-death emergency has experienced what it’s like being in this “fight-or-flight” mode. But what’s diffferent about a panic attack is that, when you have a panic attack, your fight-or-flight mode has been set on full blast during a time when you’re actually perfectly safe.
What does a panic attack feel like?
As I’ve said, a panic attack is when your body’s fight-or-flight mode is at its highest threat level: “10”—when, in reality, the threat level around you is actually closer to “0.”
Now, if you’re not sure what a panic attack feels like, then you’ve probably never had one before.
Like I described in the introduction, a panic attack can feel so severe that you might be compelled to rush to an emergency room. When you have a panic attack, you think that there’s something physically wrong with you. You may feel aches and pains or a pressure in your chest. You might feel like you’re going crazy. Everything might feel a bit disoriented, dizzy, and it might feel like the walls are closing in. There are slight variations between people I am sure, but usually you may experience shortness a breath, your heart might begin to beat more rapidly than usual, and your palms might begin to sweat more heavily. You may feel sick. The biggest sign that you’re having a panic attack is that you literally feel like you’re going to die.
I remember that when I had my first panic attack it was one of the worst feelings I had ever experienced. It’s almost as if every part of my whole being was on red alert, and it really felt as if nothing could get me out of it.
What can I do to prevent a panic attack?
The answer to this question lies in what is causing your panic attack: your mind.
Remember that, in actuality, you are perfectly fine. It’s just your mind that’s been convinced that you’re about to be attacked by a predator, and so your mind has triggered the fight-or-flight response in your body.
So, if you want to prevent a panic attack, you must continually remind your mind that you are perfectly safe. You can do this by doing one thing:
I know, I sound like a broken record on this blog by mentioning meditation so much, but it really is the thing that has finally made me no longer experience panic attacks.
If you want an easy beginning mediation practice you can read this post.
Also, I recently recommended reading three books by three authors who’ve taught me the fundamentals of meditation: Joan Borysenko, John Kabat-Zinn, and Thich Nhat Hanh. The three together create a powerful trifecta. Thich Nhat Hanh gives you the philosophy behind meditation; Borysenko filters the philosophy of Hanh through a more western, scientific, academic lens so that Americans can understand the philosophy better; and, finally, Zinn gives you the practical, every day application for mediation. Read their books if you want to master meditation practice.
(By the way, you shouldn’t give up after trying only a single type of mediation practice. There are several different meditation practices: sitting, standing, walking, eating, full-body scan, etc. Try them all, then find which ones work for you–and which one’s don’t–and then create a unique meditation practice that fits you and your schedule.)
What do I do when I’m in the middle of a panic attack?
1. Prevent the panic from snowballing. As soon as you start to have stressful thoughts, you need to see this as a warning sign. High stress and too much worrying are precursors to a panic attack. Your stressful thoughts are sending the false signal to your mind that a predator is around the corner about to attack you, and your mind will begin to raise the threat level to “10.” So, you need to counteract this outdated evolutionary software: as soon as stressful thoughts come to you, reach out and utilize a “coping mechanism.”
2. Utilize your coping mechanism. For me, if I am starting to experience a lot of stressful thoughts, I will go for a jog, I’ll write in my journal, I’ll write a poem—I’ll find some way to release that stressful energy so it’s out of me. These exercises are what therapists would call “coping mechanisms.” Coping mechanisms help you get through stressful situation. Coping mechanisms help you relax and clear your mind. So, find what helps you relax—maybe a warm bath, or playing a sport–and then make sure to use this as a coping mechanism the next time you see your stressful thoughts begin to snowball into a panic attack.
3. If the panic attack has hit already—bring your mind to the present and breathe. If it’s too late, and the panic attack has already hit, you need to do your best to come back to the present moment. Focus on your breath, going in and out. Look around you. Try to feel the grooves of the chair you’re sitting on, or hold on to a comforting blanket, and notice the blanket’s soft texture. Observe the feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant, going through your body at the moment. Don’t hold on to any single feeling. Just be aware of your thoughts and what’s going on around you. Don’t cling to any thought. Just view each thought as a leaf floating down a river. Just like leaves floating down a river, see each thought as it passes by and then disappears. This should calm you and make the attack experience easier to handle.
4. Don’t be afraid of the panic attack. Interestingly enough, it’s the fear of getting another panic attack that often leads someone to get another panic attack. So, simply remember that a panic attack is nothing to fear. You’re actually completely healthy and okay; it’s just that your mind is convinced you’re in grave danger. Instead, just let the panic attack pass through you and know that it’ll soon be over.
5. Get someone to guide you through it. You might want to have a therapist, a friend, or family member guide you through the panic attack when you’re having one. If you have panic attacks often, you may need to let the people close to you know what to do in case you get a panic attack. Let them know that you need to hear positive reinforcement during the attack. That you need them to help you breathe, be present, and reassure them of the fact that the attack will soon be over.
6. Seek counsel. If panic attacks continue to be a serious problem for you then I highly recommend you seek professional help. I want to make it clear: I’m not a professional therapist. But there are many professional therapists and counselors ready to help you deal with your panic attacks. If panic attacks are getting in the way of your writing, please don’t make this article your final stop. Please read books about it. Do your research. Finally, meet with a counselor. They will help you in ways that neither I—nor a book—can help.
Good luck to you. And remember: unless you’re in a real emergency, the panic is all in your head.
Does panic get in the way of your writing? What tips can you share with us on how to get past panic and move on with our life? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
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