How to deal with a panic attack
This post deals with the topic of panic attacks and goes through some techniques that I have found useful if you find yourself in the middle of one. These tips can also be useful for anxiety.
While spending a few days with family, away from London, I have recently been in a position to witness someone close to me go through a panic attack. This, together with the times working with clients who experience panic attacks in psychotherapy, reminded of me of just how terrifying an experience this is for the person, the feeling of not being able to catch one's breath and the worries that they may be about to die.
If psychotherapy might be helpful to uncover the root of panic attacks and help resolve them on a more permanent basis, I have found some practical tips to be most helpful in the moment when the symptoms are happening.
Maybe the biggest factor in a panic attack is that the body forgets to breathe out. The lungs are actually full by having taken too much breath so the first thing to try is to take a very long out breath, emptying the lungs, and then proceed with slow conscious breathing, taking care to make the out breath longer than the in breath, as this helps to decrease the arousal of the alarm system in the body and relax the nervous system.
Blowing on your thumb
Another technique that some people find helpful is to slowly blow on your thumb and to concentrate on the feeling and temperature of the breath as it touches the thumb.
Although this can look silly, it is really effective to calm down hyper-arousal and it works by stimulating the vagus nerve.
Placing a hand on your heart
Another simple thing to try is to place a hand and gently press on the area where your heart is as you keep breathing into your heart area.
Alternatively there is an acupressure point in the middle of the chest, roughly in the middle of the nipple line or, I think, four fingers above the base of the sternum that is used for anxiety and panic attacks. You can try just placing your hand there or pressing in this specific point as a centering practice.
Another thing that helps before, during or after a panic attack is to do some gentle grounding to come back to the present moment. You could do this by tapping your feet on the floor alternatively until you can notice the feeling of the feet as they touch the floor.
Panic attacks as memories
And lastly, another helpful thing to remember, although challenging in the moment when the attack is happening, is that although the fear of dying might be great, panic attacks are not actually fatal, you can't die from one. The most useful way that I have found to look at panic attacks is to see them as body memories. At times, when we have gone through traumatic or difficult events in our past, we learn to put away the bits of our experience that weren't allowed and these experiences get stored in the body as memories.
Although this is different for different people, it is likely that what is happening in the body at the time of a panic attack is really coming from something very far away, a bit like an echo of a time that is now gone.
If you would like to have therapy to help with panic attacks, please feel free to contact me for some more information.