Your heart was racing. You were dizzy and felt detached. You thought you were about to die. So, understandably, you tried to escape the last situation that caused you to panic.
I get it!
It is natural to try to flee when faced with an anxiety-provoking situation or object. Every part of our being instructs us to do so. But while this could be helpful if we’re faced with a predatory animal, it is the opposite of what we should be doing during a panic attack.
Our bodies are equipped with fight-or-flight responses that, when we’re faced with what feels like danger, help us decide whether to stay and fight or to run as quickly as our legs can carry us. These are absolutely phenomenal responses that our minds and bodies produce in an effort to protect us, so kudos to you, biology, for this life-saving mechanism you have equipped each of us with.
Here is the thing, though. Although this is a fantastic response to have when we are actually faced with a threatening stimulus, panic attacks in and of themselves are not physically harmful—even though they can make us feel as if we can’t breathe. Panic attacks, which are based on a spiral of fear, confuse the brain into thinking there is real danger. The more we run, the more our minds would have us believe there is something to be running from.
So, what to do about it?
Here is your panic attack survival kit, in a series of steps:
- Accept, accept, accept! Acceptance is a key ingredient in mitigating and disabling these frightening responses and faulty alarm systems. The more you accept and understand, the less you fear. Try greeting your panic attack with a one-liner such as, “Hello, anxiety!” Actually picture yourself opening the door and welcoming this unpleasant visitor inside your mind’s home.
- Stay absolutely still! Wherever you are, stay put—do not flee. While escaping may seem like a helpful short-term solution, it only creates more problems. Running deepens the fear-processing circuits in the brain. Therefore, you may be more likely to experience the same reactions and bodily sensations the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.
- Breathe from your belly! Diaphragmatic breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system or calming response as quickly as a light switch, which disables your fight-or-flight response. Try this reverse breathing technique, or breathing in through your mouth while expanding your belly, and turning your tummy inward as you exhale.
- Your mantra: this, too, shall pass! Assuming you received a clean bill of health from your physician, just remind yourself that despite how frightening these symptoms can seem, they CANNOT harm you in any way, shape, or form.
- Self-empowerment and praise! Once you have successfully made it through the aforementioned steps, you have learned how to deactivate your fear response whenever you need to. So, congratulate yourself on this victory and start treating panic attacks as empowering experiences that give you an additional opportunity to master your reactions. With each step, you are rewiring your brain and training the way it responds to panic.
In addition to the aforementioned suggestions, if you or someone you care about is experiencing panic attacks, consider seeking therapy from a trained cognitive behavioral therapist who can help you start living and stop running.
-Masha Shapiro-Berkovich, MSEd, LMHC