2020 has proven to be the year of unknowns. As one of the mind's greatest nemeses is the unknown, it's no wonder more and more people have been seeking help on the topics of anxiety, panic and stress. But what's the difference between these attacks? What happens and how do we cope when stress and anxiety become sheer panic?
Are panic attacks different than anxiety attacks?
Though many of the symptoms overlap, panic attacks are different than anxiety attacks. Panic attacks come on suddenly, oftentimes unexpectedly, and involve intense, overwhelming fear. Anxiety attacks come on gradually due to an anticipation of stress. Generally, panic attacks are more intense than anxiety attacks.
What causes a panic attack?
Sometimes a panic attack is caused by a perceived threat as large as a charging, violent animal to something as intangible as a fear in the mind. More often, the cause of panic attacks is not obvious at all. When the body goes into real panic, fight or flight mode kicks in and releases adrenaline to help you accomplish whichever protection method you choose to take. Regardless of the reality of the origin or trigger, panic attacks can feel quite terrifying.
Who might experience them?
Though panic attacks can be more common in people with anxiety disorders, panic disorders, or those who have endured early life trauma, panic attacks can be experienced by anyone and everyone. What causes a panic attack is individual to each person. Diet, exercise, meditation, and social boundaries are all wonderful ways to soothe and prevent panic attacks from happening.
3 signs you’re having a panic attack:
You suddenly feel terrified. This is an indicator that your body is on the verge of going into fight or flight mode (if it hasn’t already). If the fear comes on unexpectedly, quickly, and inexplicably, this is a strong sign that a panic attack is being experienced.
You are experiencing shortness of breath. Panic can make the breath hard to catch as the heart rate speeds and the body heats. It’s possible for the breath to simply feel shallow or for it to feel extremely challenging to breathe. Shortness of breath is a common physical expression of anxiety and panic. Though this may feel alarming, it is very normal for this symptom to be one of the first indicators of a panic attack.
Your thoughts feel entirely out of your own control and are scaring you. Our thoughts can feel out-of-control often, but when it becomes nearly unbearable and petrifying to be in your own mind is when panic is happening. Panic causes the thoughts to frenzy and become irrational. The track the panicked mind goes down in the track of fear - laden with all imaginings of the most extreme possible outcomes and scenarios.
How to tell if someone else is having a panic attack:
They are acting anxious, disconnected, agitated and/or afraid. Though these are emotions people commonly experience without having a panic attack, trust your intuition. Panic can be a very internal experience and the person going through it can sometimes feel unsafe or even shameful expressing their concerns or feelings so these emotions can come through instead of the panic itself. Check in with anyone who seems to be emoting in a way that seems abnormal for them or concerning.
They are complaining or concerned with physical sensations such as, tightness of chest, stomach pain, dizziness or blurred vision. Any or all of these physical expressions are possible. Maybe you notice them trying to catch a deep breath, or stretching their chest to alleviate tightness. Maybe you see them having a hard time walking in a straight line or operate machinery. Some even communicate feeling like they’re having a heart attack. Listen intently, guide them to a safe place and ask as many questions as possible to understand what they could be experiencing before seeking medical attention.
They are expressing fears or concerns in an intense manner. Panic creates heavy fear in the mind so if someone is having a panic attack, they may be communicating their fears in a hectic, weary or irrational-seeming way. They could be yelling, crying, frantic or disengaged. Note that not everyone will be communicative while undergoing panic, but if they are, pay attention to the rationality of their concerns or explanations. Listening and offering validity to their emotions is key to understanding and supporting this person.
If you feel like you’re having a panic attack, try this:
Take small sips of cold water. This gives the mind something to focus on, cools and soothes the body, slows the heart rate, and brings optimal functionality back to your organs and nervous system.
Move your body to confuse your brain and release adrenaline. Something somewhat high intensity, like jumping jacks are a great option.
Feel your feelings. They are there for a reason. Remember: feel to heal. Let every emotion pass through you like waves. A meditation exercise that’s extremely helpful in times of panic is to visualize diving into ocean waves, imagining each one represents an emotion you’re feeling. Keep diving in until you come out on the other side, in mellower water.
Breathe. One of my favorite breathing techniques for panic is Sitali breath. This is a form of yogic pranayama (breathing) known to cool the body and relax the nervous system. If you can, stick your tongue out and curl it into a taco shape. If this isn’t possible for you, create a small “o” shape with your lips like you would to sip through a straw. Inhale through your straw lips or taco tongue to the count of four, hold the breath for two seconds, and exhale normally through the nose for 4-6 seconds. Repeat at least 10 times or until calmer to lower stress hormones, like cortisol.
What should I do if I think someone else is having a panic attack?
If you think someone else is having a panic attack, be as soothing as possible. That means talking in a low, calm voice, asking what they need, validating their feelings, and listening. If the person is crying, let them know it’s okay to cry. If the person is expressing concerns, let them know you understand and hear them out. Get them a cool towel and help them place it on their pulse points to cool and regulate the body. Have them sip cool water. Let them know they are safe and you are there to support them during this moment. Remind them that it will subside and to keep breathing. If you are unsure or uncomfortable, calmly seek professional or medical attention.
What does it feel like to have a panic attack?
Having a panic attack can quickly and momentarily feel like the world is ending. Emotionally, panic attacks feel scary and confusing. Mentally, panic attacks create intrusive thoughts that feel very out of control. Physical sensations vary, but can include weakness, dizziness, blurred vision, heart palpitations, shaking or trembling, headaches, tightness of chest, tingling and numbness, sweating, nausea and shortness of breath. During a panic attack, it might seem nearly impossible to see the end in sight. But, one must remember: it will subside within a few minutes after a peak.
How to prevent future panic attacks:
Practice meditation daily. Anxiety and panic attacks are oftentimes formed from a place of future-tripping. When we future-trip, we are doing the opposite of living in the present moment. The present moment is usually much less scary than we even anticipated it to be, so being in the moment every step of the way helps ensure that we aren’t blindsided, become irrational, or spin out of control. Meditation is key to practicing living in the present. Try beginning your day with a simple 5-minute mindfulness practice for two weeks and see if you notice a shift.
Create boundaries with people. Panic can happen when people infringe on our comfort zones and act in ways that hurt, offend, or worry us. Though we can’t prevent every little thing from happening in life, communication is key. If you know something triggers anxiety for you, let people know. Ask them to honor your feelings and requests. Doing this, is truly honoring yourself.
Choose a supportive diet. Alcohol, sugar, caffeine, processed foods, and dairy can cause inflammation and stress on the body that keeps adrenaline levels high and weakens your immune system. When the body isn’t well-nourished, it becomes ill-prepared to battle mental, physical, or emotional journeys. Make healthy fats, nutrient-rich veggies, whole grains and clean proteins your medicine.
Remember, if you think you or a loved one is suffering from anxiety or panic disorder, seek professional attention. You are not alone and there are so many ways to soothe and be soothed.