Anyone who has had a panic attack, knows how debilitating and beyond description they can feel. They are among some of the worst experiences a person can have. Panic attacks are basically sudden episodes of intense far, which are triggered by a fearful thought (or series of thoughts) that the person having the attack is usually unaware of. The brain has no way of distinguishing between what is physical reality and what is imagined, so the fearful thought causes the body to respond as if it were in a life or death situation. The body is flooded with chemicals that are associated with the fight or flight response, such as adrenaline. The sensations felt during a panic attack would be totally normal to feel if one was running for their life from a grizzly bear for example. But panic attacks happen in situations which are seemingly normal. The emotions which occur during a panic attack seem to be happening out of context, which causes the person having the panic attack to feel as if they are out of control and going crazy. That fear of going crazy and loosing control feeds the panic attack, intensifying it to a level of fear that is unparalleled by any other kind of fear. The sensation of a panic attack is often so bad, that it causes fear of recurrent attacks. The fear of having another panic attack is sometimes bad enough to trigger another attack.
Some of the sensations associated with panic attacks are:
- A feeling of surreal-ness (Being disconnected from yourself/reality)
- An intense feeling of doom and danger.
- Rapid heart rate
- Trembling (shaking)
- Numbness in the extremities
- Tingling in hands and fingers
- Shortness of breath
- Hot flashes
- Abdominal cramping
- Chest pain and constriction
- The sensation of being frozen or paralyzed
- Sudden need to urinate again and again
- Trouble swallowing
- Tightness in the throat.
To stop a panic attack, we must not ignore what is happening. We must also never forge forward with an action hoping that the panic attack will simply go away on its own. Contrary to popular belief, we will not acclimatize to the action if we ignore the intense level of fear we feel in the moment.
To complete this process follow these steps:
- Close your eyes and take 5 deep, slow breaths in a row. When you breathe in, fill your lungs to their full capacity and then hold the breath for 7 seconds. When you release your breath, do so slowly.
- Remind yourself what is happening by saying mentally or out loud “I am having a panic attack”, these are just heightened sensations within my body that are normal for someone having a panic attack”. This pulls your brain out of the space of catastrophic thinking. It reminds your brain that instead of actually being in a life or death situation, the reality of your current environment is the same, you are simply experiencing an emotional event.
- Turn your focus inwards towards the fear and panic. This may sound counterintuitive, but it is the most important part of this process. When you do this, name the sensations and images and sounds and impressions associated with the panic. Experience the panic as if you were exploring a thing rather than a state of being. You want to describe it fully to yourself. It may help you to write down what you perceive. For example this may look like: Sensation, you feel like metal, you look like a deep chasm in a snow field. You are burning and lonely stretching from my navel to my throat. You are throbbing. It feels like you are holding me prisoner. Resisting the sensations will make them worse. Embracing them and exploring them fully will cause them to dissipate. Every symptom we experience exists so that we will pay attention to it and what it has to tell us. When you welcome the sensations, it changes your point of power and that causes the brain to stop producing stress chemicals. The sensations of a panic attack are meant to be acknowledged. What’s more than that, they must be acknowledged in order to be processed.
- Make a direct request to your body to make the sensations get louder and become…more. Once you have made this request, continue to stay with the sensations and write down any additional perceptions you may have about the experience of the panic attack. This step takes the previous step even further. It removes all remaining resistance that you have to the panic attack. It ensures that the fear is no longer being fed by mental resistance. And when we no longer feed fear with resistance, it disappears. On top of this, your confidence will kick in because you will realize that you have control over the experience. The experience is not what has control over you.
- Ask the sensation what it needs you to know. Look deeply into the experience of the panic attack for what it is trying to tell you. For example, your panic attack may say to you “You’re ignoring me, I don’t want to do what you’re trying to make me do. Why are you forcing yourself to do something that doesn’t feel good?” Acknowledge that you hear it and what’s more than that, that you have gratitude for its expression. After all, like any emotion, it is giving you accurate feedback about what you are focused upon and whether that focus was right for you or wrong for you personally. If your focus has led to a panic attack, then you know definitively that the thought you chose to think or what you were paying attention to where not in line with your highest good and who you really are.
- Look deeply to try to identify what you were thinking about or paying attention to prior to the attack. You want to re trace your mental steps back to before you were feeling the panic attack and try to identify what the trigger was.
- Identify what it is that you are really afraid of. Once you’ve discovered the triggering thought or focus that caused your panic attack, delve into WHY the fear exists. You can do this by alternating the questions why would that be so bad? And what does that mean to me? So for example, if I’m experiencing a panic attack on an airplane, and I’ve identified that the trigger for my panic attack was a patch of turbulence I felt on the airplane, I can ask myself why would that be so bad? Because it causes me to feel like I’m going to plummet towards the ground. So then I ask myself what does that mean to me and why is that so bad? Because I have no control at all, I can’t go to the front of the plane and fly this plane so it feels like I’m in a metal death trap, totally out of control just waiting for however long it takes to reach the ground for my inevitable painful death. Then I can ask myself what does that mean to me? It means I have no control and bad things can happen to me at any moment. Then I can ask myself, and why would that be so bad? Because… It means that I am powerless. In this scenario, I am powerless is a core belief which I’ve just discovered. It is the very belief responsible for why I have become a match to the physical experience of being in a situation where I feel powerless. This helps me to know that what I need to focus on in my life in general is changing my belief relative to victimhood. I need to discover new thoughts to hold and new actions to take which feed my awareness of my own personal power. This also lets me know that in this moment, I need to change my focus relative to riding in an airplane.
Look for evidence and proof that undermines the thought you were thinking as well as thoughts which feel better to think relative to whatever triggered the panic attack. Our realities are made up of our beliefs. Our beliefs are the result of thoughts we think over and over and subsequent evidence we have used to strengthen the validity of those thoughts. In order to experience a different reality, we must change our beliefs. In order to change our beliefs, we must change our thoughts and what we pay attention to. We must find holes in the evidence we were using to back up old beliefs and thoughts and find new evidence that backs up new beliefs and thoughts. If we were to use the previous example of flying in an airplane, I have most likely been focused on anything that would strengthen my belief that flying in an airplane means certain death. In order to shift this, I must look to undermine that belief by searching for holes in the evidence I was using previously to back up that belief. As well as look for new evidence and thoughts which strengthen a new thought such as airplanes are a safe, easy way to get from where I am to my destination. In other words, I have to begin to deliberately find any thoughts and proof that feel good to think and look at relative to the subject of flying in an airplane. For example: I can talk to a pilot about planes and reach to better understand the physics of flight. I can ask them to abate my fears about the potentials of an out of control crash. I can do an internet search under the title flying is safe. And subsequently read any articles that reinforce the idea that flying in an airplane is a safe mode of travel. I may choose to go get a pilots license. That way, I am unlikely to feel out of control in an airplane. Rather, I know exactly how to operate one. I can also compile a list of thoughts that feel good to think relative to flying in an airplane. For example: Air planes get safe and safer every year the better our technology gets, pilots are trained for hours and hours for all kinds of emergency situations so I am in good hands. The news only reports on the one plane that crashes, not the millions upon millions of lights every year that are perfectly normal and safe and easy. Etc.
If you know you have a lot of fear relative to an action you’ve already decided to take (like flying) then it can be very helpful to compile a list of positive thoughts relative to that action before hand so that you can attune yourself to those thoughts right out of the gate. This way, if you feel yourself starting to focus negatively, you can take out that list again and get yourself focused positively. This decreases the likelihood that you will spiral into a panic attack.
It is impossible to have a panic attack when you are positively focused. This is because your emotion is your indication of your focus (thoughts). The reason that severe emotional events such as panic attacks seem to come “out of the blue”, is because we think from a first person perspective. Meaning we think so quickly and live in the first person perspective so much that we are not often aware of what thoughts we’re thinking. We do not observe ourselves thinking. And so when a thought or series of thoughts comes up, we do not recognize the thoughts that caused the emotional response within us, instead we recognize the result, which is the emotional sensation.
I promise you that it is within your power to stop a panic attack. It is also within your power to think in such a way that they do not even occur in the first place. In time, your body, which is always re inventing itself and coming into alignment with health, will no longer be predisposed towards panic attacks. And in the process, not only will your panic attacks have taught you some very valuable lessons about yourself. They will also be responsible to catalyzing you in the direction of what is right for you. Towards your joy.