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Healthy coping mechanisms for panic attacks

5 Therapist approved tips to end panic attacks for good!

It's sad when your own mind is the greatest enemy to your happiness. And this is the case when it comes to panic attacks

What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks are like a raging storm that comes out of nowhere. It strikes without warning and leaves you helpless against its force. In a matter of seconds, your life can change completely. You can suddenly feel your heart racing, hands shaking, and breathing laboured. If you are lucky, the symptoms will pass within a few minutes. But sometimes, the storm will last longer than that, and you will not know what hit you.

It's important to remember though that panic attacks are not a mental illness, although they can be frightening and debilitating for the patient. Panic attacks can happen to anyone if you are under too much stress for long periods.

Dysfunctional strategies that make panic attacks incurable

When you are in the middle of a panic attack, do you do any of the following things to try and help you stop it?

Do you try to distract your mind by thinking of anything other than what is causing the panic attack?

Like trying to fiddle with your fingers or an object to hyper-focus on it. Or do you pick up your phone and try and watch some funny video or ring someone to help take your mind away from the feelings of panic?

Do you try to count and slow your breathing down because you will notice that when you have a panic attack, you tend to breathe rapidly?

Do you try to make sure you are seated because you tend to go light-headed and faint sometimes? And do you avoid situations and things that you know have caused you panic attacks in the past?

Can you relate to any of these?

If yes, would it surprise you if I said these are the unhealthy coping strategies keeping your panic attack problems alive?

I know, it feels like a weird thing to say... But in today's article, I would like to go through the science with you and show you certain things to help you see a pattern behind every panic attack disorder.

And the pattern is this. In mental health, many things we do to try and feel better can often be the same things that promote the emotional problems we are trying to get rid of.

To elaborate on what I am saying, let's do a quick experiment. 

When deep breathing exercises induce more panic symptoms

Try breathing in and out deeply and heavily for a few seconds, as you usually do when you have a panic attack. Notice how this is bringing on a slight sensation of dizziness or light-headedness. In fact, you may even notice that your feet feel wobbly too.

What's the point of this experiment?

Most emotional well-being gurus will tell you that deep breathing helps you relax, calm yourself down and stop a panic attack.

But have you noticed that in many cases, especially when a panic attack has taken hold, this does not work?

It does not always work because deep diaphragmatic breathing can actually induce more panic symptoms like you would have experienced while doing the above experiment.

Can you see my point here...

Deep breathing is actually promoting more problems with panic attacks.


Why distraction is an unhealthy coping mechanism for panic attacks

Did you know that relying on distraction techniques for coping with panic attacks causes you to lose trust in yourself?

You lose trust in your ability to feel okay and manage anxiety. The more you distract, the more you become afraid of feeling the feelings that accompany panic attacks. This causes you to develop a dependency on distraction as a solution to panic attacks.

The reality though is that as long as you rely on distraction in this manner, the panic attack will keep returning because this cycle convinces you that you are not capable of dealing with panic attacks without the help of distraction. And this makes you feel more threatened by panic attacks.

Why using mindfulness to manage panic attacks is a massive mistake!

Can mindfulness be an avoidant technique that keeps panic attack problems alive?

I had a client who was a master of meditation and yet he ironically suffered from regular panic attacks.

Why is that ironic?

Usually, people tell you that being able to meditate can help you to resolve panic-related problems. But then the panic attacks would always re-occur.

This was not resolving the problem.

After some investigations, we discovered that his meditation was actually contributing to maintaining his panic attacks.

Meditation stopped the client from facing his panic attacks, so he could never learn to desensitize himself to them. Which meant he always believed that panic attacks were a threat.

And this highlights the core problem here!

You see, the core problem is you believe that panic attacks are dangerous to you. As long as this belief exists, your panic attacks will keep returning.

And if you keep doing things to distract yourself like this, you train your brain to believe that panic attacks are dangerous.

But, If you can do something completely eradicate this belief that panic attacks are dangerous, your panic attacks will cease to be a problem.

However, getting to the point of changing this belief can be extremely difficult because of an important reason which we will discuss next.

Developing an efficient mindset for dealing with stress in daily living

Changing the belief that keeps panic attack problems alive in your life can be difficult because two parts of our brain interfere with this belief. A part of our brain manages our logical thinking (the cortex) and a part of our brain manages emotional thinking (the limbic system). The logical part of managing things like adding, subtracting and dealing with budgets, whilst the emotional part of the brain manages anything to do with your emotions.

As a result,  if you know something very well logically, you may not necessarily know that same thing on an emotional level. So even if you know logically that there should be no reason to be having a panic attack, you may not necessarily know this emotionally. This means your emotions will feel afraid, whilst your logic is telling you that you've got nothing to be scared off.

And that is why you often feel confused, almost like you've got two minds when dealing with these emotional problems.

But why does this happen?

You see in the intense heat of emotions, and your emotional mind naturally pushes your logical mind out of the window.

This means that the more emotional you get, the more irrational you naturally become.

As your panic attack symptoms get worse (leading to heightened emotions) the ability to think clearly deteriorates. Hence, you are more likely to believe what a panic attack is telling you is happening.

Which may be... I am having a heart attack... I am having a stroke... I am losing control and going crazy... I'm going to stop breathing, et cetera.

And this is also why when you calm down and can think clearer, you start to wonder why you would believe such a ludicrous thing in the first place.

As you can see, to become effective at overcoming the panic attacks completely, got to work the understanding of this process into your mindset so that it can influence the way you deal with your panic attack.

Hopefully, you can also see why effective techniques for calming yourself down also stop Panic attacks. Because a calm mind is less emotional and more rational, you are less likely to believe the lies the panic feelings are telling you.

But unfortunately, this is also the trap that stops you from overcoming panic attack problems permanently.

I'll explain...


Ways to stop a panic attack problems forever

Remember what I said earlier.

If you can train yourself to believe that panic attacks are not dangerous, you can destroy the problem of panic attacks for good.

Hence, the foundation of any effective strategy for overcoming panic attack problems permanently should be belief change.

If you focus all of your efforts on just calming yourself down because this has the potential to stop your panic attacks every time they occur... If this is what you do, you train your brain to keep believing that panic attacks are dangerous.

And this keeps the problem of panic attacks alive in your life.

So, in order to stop panic attacks problems permanently, it's essential to follow these tips.

Tip 1: Engineer all your strategies to effect belief change

Since the core of this approach is belief change, more specifically, emotional belief change it is important to practice processes that help to influence your belief when you are in an emotional state of panic. Because that's when the emotional mind is paying attention.

Essentially, we've got to convince your emotional mind panic attacks are safe. This way your emotional mind will stop forcing you into a state of alarm whenever it senses any symptom of panic creeping up.

Tip 2: Use baby steps to avoid overwhelming yourself whilst eradicating panic attack problems

It is crucial that as a train yourself to feel safe with panic attacks you do so in baby steps.

It's very important to use all the different strategies that you are already accustomed to using. A very good approach is to see the strategies as armbands that help to keep afloat as you are learning to swim. The better you get at swimming the less you rely on the armbands.

How does this relate to working with panic attacks?

As we have said, all the different strategies which you may be currently using to manage your panic attack do not get to the root cause of the problem. They only stop your panic symptoms temporarily. But unfortunately, they also promote more problems with panic attacks as you become more reliant on them. Much like you would struggle to believe you can swim without armbands if you never let go of the armbands.

You will struggle to trust that you can survive without all the strategies you rely on if you keep relying on them.

So we've got to reduce using them in order to help your emotional mind believe that panic attacks are not dangerous. However, can't go cold turkey on using these strategies, because this would overwhelm you. Much in the same way as drastic discontinuation of using armbands whilst learning to swim will traumatise you.

So, learn as many panic attack stopping the strategies you can learn. Then gradually reduce reliance on them. That is how we train the brain to overcome panic attack problems for good.

Tip 3: Use your triggers as training grounds

Adopt cognitive behavioral therapy CBT processes.

Perhaps you've heard of exposure therapy or systematic desensitization, which are two commonly used strategies for overcoming panic attack problems in CBT.

Essentially, the CBT therapist uses your panic attack triggers as training grounds for helping your mind overcome the fear of panic attack symptoms.

In this case, all you do is to move towards your trigger and stay with the uncomfortable feeling of panic for a second or two if this is all you can cope with. Then use your strategies to stop the panic feelings. Once you feel comfortable with a few seconds of panic, increase this gradually by a few seconds or minutes, depending on what you are comfortable with, until you can stay with a trigger for over an hour without feeling the panic or mental health symptoms again.

Once this happens, you will notice that panic attacks will cease to be a problem for you again.

Some general triggers of panic attacks are as follows:

1) Noticing your breath going shallow

2)describing your panic attack symptoms

3) Drinking coffee

4) Going to certain places where you have had a panic attack before.

5) Going to certain places that are linked with past traumatic experiences

6) Being in a situation where you feel extremely uncomfortable

7) Listening to certain music

8) Thinking about a certain subject that is linked to a traumatic experience (like a past bad relationship)

9) Watching certain shows that bring on panic feelings

10) Thinking about death

11) Jogging on the spot till your heart races

12) bending down and standing up very fast till you feel dizzy

Tip 4: Use these strategies to stop panic attacks fast (But don't get addicted to them)

Remember, just because you can stop your panic attacks fast does not mean they will not return again. So use the strategies in this section to help you stop panic attacks whilst training yourself with the other strategies to permanently stop panic attack problems.

Relying solely on these strategies will create an addiction problem. If this happens, you become a slave to them and develop more mental health issues.

In addition, remember that most of these strategies lose effectiveness dig deeper you are into the panic attack. So at the height of your panic attacks, you may find them less effective at stopping the symptoms.

Some strategies that can help you stop panic attacks fast :

1) One nostril slow breathing: Hold one nostril with your finger as you breathe out slowly through the other. This helps you relax and brings oxygen to the brain.

2) Hold your breath until your body forces you to breathe: For some people, this as a natural effect of stopping the panic symptoms

3) Chew gum: Focus on the gum as you chew. How does it taste? how does it feel in your mouth? 

4) Drink water: If one of your strong anxiety attack symptoms is dryness in your mouth and throat, this can help you feel cool and calm.

5) Rub ice on your body or take an ice-cold shower: The cold shock of the ice can help calm your mind and body. As you can imagine, this forces your attention away from the panic symptoms very quickly.
6) Take a warm aromatherapy bath: the soothing smell of the oil can help calm your nerves.
7) smell something with very strong sent: This helps to interrupt anxiety feeling by grabbing the attention of the brain's fear centres.

8) Find a peaceful spot: Shutting all the world's noise away can be helpful. Try finding a place where you feel at ease and enjoy the moment.

Tip 5: Use these long-term strategies to finally seal panic attacks away for good

Sometimes, even after you are no longer fearful about panic attacks, they may still persist. This is often because lifestyle problems cause you to get highly stressed for long periods. At other times, panic attacks may persist because there are unresolved traumatic problems in your past, which then cause you to develop lifestyle coping strategies that promote a stressful existence.

Here are some long-term strategies for stopping panic attacks:

1) self-monitoring: Becoming fully aware of how different actions or inactions impact your physical symptoms is a cornerstone of effective panic attack symptom management. you can use Apps like Worry watch, Moodkit, Sam App, T2 Mood Tracker and Pacifica.

Or you can use self-monitoring questionnaires like the Panic Disorder Severity Scale

2) Abstain from recreational drugs: Some people who use recreational drugs are prone to experiencing panic attacks.

One of the reasons for this is that alcohol, cocaine and other illicit drugs can interfere with your ability to relax and fall asleep at night.

Alcohol, in particular, can cause your heart rate to increase, and this, combined with an increased adrenaline level, can trigger panic attacks.

3) Get plenty of rest: The body can only deal with so much stress. If you have excessive stress, you may experience physical and emotional symptoms such as insomnia, high blood pressure, and anxiety. Rest helps the body recover and better manage the stress you are dealing with.

4) Regular exercise: exercise is a great way to relieve stress. Try to aim for 20 minutes of swimming, walking, running, dancing or weight training daily. Remember that the benefits of exercise for stress management are compounding: the more often you exercise, the better it is.

5) Use muscle relaxation techniques: this is a quick, easy and effective technique for relieving stress and muscle tension. It involves tensing and relaxing muscles. This is done by focusing on breathing slowly and deeply. You can also use this method to relax and focus before meditation.

6) Lean acceptance-based strategies: This is a process that is based on accepting what you cannot control. For example, your situation may not change.

Or, if your situation can change, you may not get the desired result. You may not be able to control how other people treat you.

Or you may have to accept that your panic attacks are unlikely to go away. These thoughts are common among those who suffer from chronic panic attacks, and they can help you cope with them.

They are also helpful for helping you accept that your panic attacks are not a sign that your life is doomed but rather that you are living through a difficult time.

7) Use proactive coping strategies: With proactive coping techniques, you try to anticipate stressful situations before they happen and find solutions that can reduce your stress. For example, if you know that you will be driving at night in a car that has a tendency to break down, you might put more gas in the tank than usual to give yourself more time to get to a repair shop.

8) solution-based strategies: This is a process of actively finding solutions to your problems. The idea here is to look for ways to avoid potential stressors. For example, you may be able to change your work schedule so you can take lunch breaks when the office is empty. Or you may be able to find someone to do certain work for you.

9) Rely on emotional support strategies: Emotional support is a coping strategy where you seek to connect with people who can provide you with empathy, understanding and reassurance. These individuals can reassure you that you are not alone in your struggle and that you are not going to let the panic attacks destroy your life.

10) Prescription drugs: Several prescription medications are available to help alleviate anxiety and panic symptoms. These include benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, Ativan and Valium; beta-blockers, like propranolol; and antidepressants, like fluoxetine and Prozac.

11) Herbal remedies: herbal remedies can sometimes help manage panic attacks. They are less likely than medication to produce unwanted side effects. Some herbs can be useful for anxiety relief: Ginkgo biloba, chamomile tea, valerian root, St. John's wort and lavender.

12) Expressive Writing: this is a process of writing about painful situations honestly. You could write about something that happened in your past or even about things you fear happening in the future. The goal of writing is to reduce stress by venting your emotions in a safe place. This is very effective if PTSD is a strong source of panic attacks.

You don't have to be a slave to panic attacks.

Learn how to break free from the crippling fear of having an attack and get back to living life the way you want.


Written by Adewale Ademuyiwa


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