SOURCE: Dr. Henry Cloud
Challenge Panic attacks can hit you at the most random, inconvenient times without notice or apparent triggers. They can create intense moments that leave you fearful while waiting for the feeling of impending doom to subside.
Solution By observing mindfulness, we can decrease the intensity of a panic attack by allowing anxiety to run is course without shaming ourselves or suppressing our feelings.
The feeling struck while I was driving down the interstate to an appointment. My muscles tightened and encapsulated me. My breath became short and my head started spinning. The cadence of my heartbeat increased while my hands clinched the leather on my steering wheel.
“This is it,” I told myself. “I’m really dying this time.”
This time, right? This wasn’t just the result of some fabricated paranoia. These symptoms were real.
I could feel my throat start to close, and I was convinced I was going to suffocate and pass out. The feeling intensified as I realized I could seriously injure myself or another person if it happened while I was driving, so I pulled over at the nearest exit.
The mystery of a panic attack can create enough anxiety to actually trigger one. The phenomenon has been studied for decades and has been loosely explained through theories of evolution, genetics and the fight-flight-freeze response. Preventing them from occurring, however, has been a trial-and-error process and one person’s remedy doesn’t always work for another.
Though we’re not operating in the rational parts of our brain during a panic attack, exercising mindfulness could make a difference in its intensity. Give these exercises a try.
1. Embrace what’s happening.
The physical symptoms you’re experiencing are the result of your body trying to protect itself. (This, of course, is assuming you’ve been cleared of any pre-existing conditions from your doctor.) When the fight-flight-freeze response is active in your brain during a panic attack, it sends messages to different parts of the body to respond to the perceived danger you’re processing.
2. Focus on your breathing pattern.
There are different variations of doing this, but here’s what works for me. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4-6 seconds, and then exhale for 4 seconds. Do this as many times as you need to. The idea here is to focus on your breath and to return a normal oxygen flow to parts of your brain and body.
3. Eat a mint or chew some gum.
The stronger the scent, the better. The taste overloads your senses and takes away the intensity of what you’re experiencing.
4. Stop shaming yourself.
You may find yourself embarrassed in how you’re responding to external stimuli while your body and mind endure the downward spiral of panic. Allow yourself to honor how you’re feeling, recognize what’s happening and to get through the experience. Attempts to suppress these things could make the anxiety worse.
5. Don’t ask “Why?”
Asking yourself, “Why?” is not a question that comes from the rational part of your mind. It comes from the proverbial heart or your gut. The answer to “Why” takes you down the rabbit hole of “What-ifs” that won’t give you the answers to relief.
Mindfulness means we give ourselves permission to accept our thoughts, feelings and experiences without judgment and shame. It opens our attention to what’s happening in the present. When we embrace the physical symptoms of a panic attack, it sends a message to the amygdala, almost as if it were to say, “Hey, I know what this is. I’ve experienced it before and everything will eventually be ok.” Give yourself permission to let anxiety run its course and acknowledge how you feel when it happens. Practicing mindfulness at the onset of a panic attack allows you to make the necessary connections that ease the anxiety efficiently.