"Am I Having A Panic Attack?" 6 Tips For Coping Through Panic
Social media has been great in raising awareness to mental health struggles and providing insight into what it's like to experience some of these things. It also has been quite detrimental in leading everyone to incorrectly using words like "gaslighting," "narcissist," "dissociation," and even "anxiety & panic." This can be really confusing when someone might be saying they are anxious, when in reality they are experiencing normal nervousness. This can also take place in the opposite effect, where people have received bad information and believe that they are simply nervous, when in reality they may be riddled with anxiety and panic.
So, What Actually is a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks can look different for each person, but there are some commonalities across research and listed below.
Sudden fear that there is danger
Fear of death or losing control
Rapid heart rate
Pounding heart rate
Sweating, chills, and/or hot flashes
Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
Detached from reality (things feeling unreal)
Feeling short of breath, tight chest, or even chest pain
Dizziness, headache, or lightheaded
Numb/tingly in extremities
Panic attacks can feel debilitating. It's not uncommon for many individuals to describe experiences of going to the emergency room because they thought they were having a heart attack. Many people might feel shame from the symptoms they are experiencing, and feeling that their body and mind are betraying them.
Having a panic attack can feel debilitating and horrifying. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 5% of the population are diagnosed with panic disorder, and that does not account for those who go undiagnosed, untreated, or have panic attacks without meeting criteria for a diagnosis. You are not alone.
What Can I Do?
Identify a plan of action before you have another panic attack. Try not to ruminate on this possibility, but rather assure yourself that you are prepared for the next time this happens. This is an important step in the process, as it communicates to yourself that you are capable of coping through this. Keep reading for tips to use in your planning ahead.
Engage your senses when you are having a panic attack. Notice what you can see, what you can hear, what you can smell, what you can feel, and even what you can taste. If we are feeling detached from our body or from the environment around us, this can help draw us back to ourself and our surroundings. Many of these skills are titled something easy to remember, like 54321 (5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, etc.), and ROYGBIV, where you search for all of the primary colors around you. Finding what works for you is most important.
Gum & Mints
This goes in partnership with utilizing our senses. Having some mints or some peppermint gum on hand can help draw our attention to something different. Noticing how it tastes, the texture, and how it feels to move our jaw, can all be helpful to focus in on.
If this is not an option for you, some individuals like to utilize peppermint oils to smell.
You can make your own, or you can purchase coping cards online from sites like Etsy. This is a great way to have something tangible to look at and remind us of our coping skills, when maybe we aren't in a state of remembering what to utilize. These cards should have similar skills on them that remind us to engage our senses, use our breath, and more. Searching for "panic attack coping cards" or "trauma skills coping cards" can be a great start, or finding some index cards and writing down what works for you.
Many individuals may experience hyperventilation during a panic attack. Focusing in on controlling our breath (and nothing else) can help to regulate our nervous system out of it's fight/flight response. If our breath is the only thing we can control in that moment, it is worth noticing.
During panic attacks, our body is telling us that it's in complete danger or at risk of death. This means that our body uses up it's resources and we might notice we have dry mouth. Utilizing hydration with water can help regulate our body back to baseline, and again, engages the senses.
Panic attacks are terrifying, and while coping skills are helpful, that's what they are - for coping. Speaking with a counselor/therapist can help to explore the root of the issue and why you might be having panic attacks. If you are struggling with panic, know that you are not alone, and we are here to help.