Panic attacks suck. I’ve had them, I know friends that have had them. They come on quickly and like to pretend they’re in total control, and they’re quite convincing too. But don’t worry, they’re just bluffing. Their only goal is to send a message, nothing more, nothing less. Listen for the message and they’ll be out of your life in no time.
One of the hardest parts of panic attacks is not knowing what to do during the first one. You may not know what’s happening and that can be the scariest part. But once you can recognize what’s happening, you can quickly overcome it.
In the moment, the key is breathing. By breathing in deeply and having extended exhales, you telling the brain that you are safe and the brain responds accordingly. “This new [1:2 ratio for inhale to exhale] respiratory cycle begins to slow down the heart rate, sending a message to the brain that everything is more peaceful and calm than five minutes ago, allowing the brain to support this shift further by activating the Parasympathetic portion of the Autonomic Nervous System (the Rest and Digest or Relaxation response) that goes back from brain to body.”
Find a candle, perfume, or another kind of scent to bring you back to the here and now, reminding you that you’re safe and whatever you’re anxious about is not here right now.
Call a safe person (safe: someone that accepts you without judgment, a loving listener, someone that won’t go into their story of that one time they had a panic attack and "oh my goodness I still can't believe my mother said that terrible thing about me shouldn't she know better," etc.) and share your experience. Tell them you just need them to listen and some support.
Once you’re out of it and in a safe place, act like a detective, tracing your way back to before the attack to figure out exactly what thoughts you were thinking. Determining these thoughts will help you to later address them and heal the belief systems supporting those thoughts in order to prevent future panic attacks.
Remember, the purpose of the attack is to send a message. They’re trying to keep you safe from something, just in a very loud way. The message of the panic attack can be found in the thoughts (and supporting beliefs) that you discovered. For instance, a panic attack that seemingly came out of nowhere, actually came from just a small thought about having to do a presentation at work next week. It seems like an innocent thought, but in reality it’s linked to a memory of throwing up on stage during a presentation in middle school, asking that girl on a date and she said no, or that time you asked your dad for a hug and he told you men don’t hug. They may not seem related, but each memory represents a lack of support in a time when you felt you were putting yourself out on the line.
Panic attacks are rooted in thoughts, whether we’re aware of the thoughts or not. We must intentionally seek out the thoughts that created the symptoms of the panic so that we can address them. Addressing and then shifting the perspective around the memories and thoughts is the fastest and most effective ways to avoid another attack.