Resisting or fighting the symptoms of a panic attack is likely to make the symptoms worse. It is important to avoid tensing up in reaction to a panic attack or trying to suppress the symptoms. Although it is important to take effective action to manage a panic attack, it is also important to avoid fighting or resisting symptoms.
Symptoms of panic attacks may include some combination of the following:
- Numbness or tingling
- Feeling hot
- Wobbliness in legs
- Unable to relax
- Fear of worst happening
- Dizzy or lightheaded
- Heart pounding/racing
- Terrified or afraid
- Feeling of choking
- Hands trembling
- Shaky / unsteady
- Fear of losing control
- Difficulty in breathing
- Fear of dying
- Faint / lightheaded
- Face flushed
- Hot/cold sweats
Below are four strategies to help you cope with a panic attack.
Face the symptoms – don’t run from them.
Blocking symptoms of a panic attack or ignoring early warning signs will make the symptoms worse. It is important to face the symptoms head on by saying to yourself:
- “This is NOT an emergency. It is okay to think slowly about what I need to do.”
- “I can tolerate these symptoms and sensations.”
- “I can get through this moment.”
- “I can allow my body to go through this reaction.”
It is critical to develop the courage to face panic attacks head on. Write out a list of positive, coping statements and keep this list on your phone. Read the list whenever you experience early warning signs of panic.
Accept what your body is doing- don’t fight it.
When you fight panic symptoms, you make yourself more anxious. It is critical to develop an attitude of “letting go” and allowing your body to have its reactions. Your heart might race, you might feel faint, dizzy, out of control, and sweat. The key is to be able to watch or observe your body’s physical distress. Sometimes I suggest that clients think of their body as a person. You might allow this “person” to express whatever it needs to express to you. Be compassionate toward your body’s distress. Do not hate it or react to it. Accept it fully. Check out my blog posts, “The Practice of Radical Acceptance,” and “9 Ways to Accept Reality,” to learn more.
Float with the wave of panic rather than force your way through it.
In the 1990 book, “Hope and Help for your Nerves,” Dr. Claire Weeks explains that panic attacks consist of two distinct fears: first fear and second fear. First fear consists of the physical reactions that underly a panic attack, and second fear is being afraid of these reactions. When you say to yourself, “I cannot handle this,” “I am afraid of having a panic attack,” “What if other people see what is happening to me,” you induce “second fear.” Second fear makes the physical symptoms worse and makes it difficult to overcome the panic attack. Even though you cannot do much to eliminate “first fear,” you can work to manage “second fear” by learning to float with the rising and falling of your body’s state of arousal.
In order to float with the symptoms, I encourage my clients to practice the following when they experience a panic attack:
- Sit down or lie down immediately when symptoms begin.
- Take calming breathes. Breathe in for the count of 8, hold for the count of 4, and breathe out for the count of 8.
- Take breaks between your breathing exercise to drink water! Drink as much water as possible. Water helps you naturally regulate your breathing and calms the body.
- As your bodily reactions calm down, say to yourself, “My body is amazing. It is communicating its needs to me. It is telling me something in my life is out of balance.” “I must listen to it.”
In addition, learning to sufferwell through a panic attack will make a world of difference in how you float with the wave. Check out my blog post, “SufferWell” to learn how to tolerate distress more effectively.
Allow time to pass.
Dr. Edmund Bourne author of the, “Anxiety and Phobia Workbook,” says that panic attacks are caused a by a sudden surge of adrenalin. If you can allow, and float with the bodily sensations and reactions much of the adrenalin will be metabolized and reabsorbed in three to five minutes. As soon as the body calms down, you will start to feel better. Remember that panic attacks are time limited. In most cases, panic symptoms will peak and begin to subside within a few minutes. It will pass more quickly if you do not offer any resistance to it and practice radically accepting the symptoms. I know that it is very upsetting to have a panic attack! However, learning to float with the wave will help you cope more effectively.
If you are struggling with panic attacks and need support, I am hear for you! You are not alone. Watch my short video to learn how I can help you overcome panic attacks.
About the Author
Dr. Christine E. Dickson is a nationally recognized psychologist specializing in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy. Her work has been featured in magazines, newspapers, and journals, and she’s been interviewed 14 times on local television.
Dr. Dickson has over 20 years experience as a clinical psychologist and works with clients virtually and in-person at her office in Pleasanton, California. If you would like to set up an appointment or contact her, please visit her website.