If you’ve read some of my blogs before then you already know, but if you haven’t, then here goes. A few years ago I suffered from debilitating panic attacks. Like, couldn’t drive more than a mile and a half without having to pull over and have a panic attack type of debilitating. For the longest time I fought those feelings of panic because that’s the only thing I knew to do. There weren’t a lot of resources out there for me to tell me anything different and for several years I was stuck in the vicious cycle of avoiding anything that would trigger my panic. Because I had to drive to do basically anything, I lived in a constant state of panic, misery, and I just plain avoided most things that I thought would trigger a panic attack. It wasn’t till I found a man on YouTube (username: I Love Panic Attacks) who had gone through a similar situation that I started to understand WHY my panic attacks were happening and how I could react differently to stop them. I don’t understand why this information isn’t more widely shared, so let me do my part and share what I know.
To keep it short and sweet, when our body goes into panic mode it is naturally initiating the flight or fight response. Our body is on auto-pilot in a sense and when our mind thinks there is a potential threat we will put up our defenses in order to protect ourselves. In a “normal” situation we would see a threat, for example a rabid coyote running straight at you, and then your fight or flight response would kick in and your adrenaline would start pumping like crazy. In this particular situation it wouldn’t feel like a panic attack because you are in a situation that most people would find terrifying and so you would just focus on the coyote and use that extra adrenaline to run for your life.
Let’s circle back to panic attacks now. I don’t know the science behind it – that’s complicated beyond my brain capabilities, but essentially our mind is perceiving something as a threat that isn’t actually a threat, and it puts us into that fight or flight mode when we don’t need to be. What throws us off is we start to feel this rush of adrenaline – a racing heart, sweaty palms, chest pains, etc – and we’re confused because the reasonable half of us KNOWS that there is no threat. We then get scared because we feel all these physical symptoms that lead us to believe something else might be wrong, i.e. a heart attack. Let me give you an example from my life. My biggest trigger was driving because I had my first panic attack while behind the wheel. Every time I got in a car after that incident my brain believed there was a threat and I needed to be protected at all costs. Naturally my body started pumping adrenaline into my system so I could run like hell out of my vehicle into the safest location. It didn’t make sense to me or anyone around me, but my body thought of itself as a hero because it was giving me what I needed to be protected from my car. Funny stuff really.
The really cute thing here is that your body is actually just trying to protect you and keep you safe. Believe me, I know it doesn’t feel like that and on the contrary it feels like you’re dying in a really dramatic manner. But the intentions are pure. I promise. This is important to understand because the shift in how I looked at panic attacks came at the exact moment I realized they are not the enemy. That is when my recovery started. If you want to get over your panic attacks, you have to accept them with open and loving arms. Stop running away.
I’ll be frank, this process of learning to just be hunky dory with your panic attacks isn’t easy or seamless by any means. You have to learn to ride the wave of feeling ok one minute and then feeling like you’re spiraling down the next and just get comfortable in that chaos for a little while. If you can hold on for just a little bit, it will get better.
So how do you learn to accept panic attacks – the thing that is making your life miserable. It’s not so much that you have to love this card you were dealt in life, but more that you just have to acknowledge what is happening, see it, have a little internal dialogue with yourself if you want, and then let it happen. It’s acceptance is all it is. So the next time you start feeling your heart racing just stop for a second. Before you think, “Oh sh*t I’m having a panic attack” and then spiral into your negative thought pattern, see if you can separate your thoughts from the physical symptoms. Acknowledge that your heart is beating faster and instead of having a negative reaction to that and getting scared, just tell yourself you know that it will continue to beat fast for the next few minutes and it might even get worse, and then let it happen.
It gets easier over time, but if you’re able to acknowledge your symptoms instead of react to them, the symptoms will go away faster because they can’t feed off of your fear anymore. Essentially the goal is to separate your physical symptoms and your emotions. You have to teach yourself to understand that the two are separate elements and they don’t have to be intertwined if you don’t let them. It’s not a perfect practice and it damn sure isn’t easy, but it is what I found to be most effective in treating my own panic attacks. Eventually you will get better at controlling the panic and then the attacks will become less frequent. Before you know it, you’ll look back and realize that you haven’t had a panic attack in a few weeks, and then years. I honestly can’t remember the last time I had a full blown panic attack. There’s been situations where I’ve gotten lost driving in the middle of the night and I’ve come close to breaking down and spiralling out of control, but I’m always able to catch it before it gets that far and gain control back.
I wouldn’t wish panic attacks on my worst enemy and I sincerely hope that someone out there found this at least slightly helpful. If you don’t personally suffer from them, pass this along to a friend who does. It’s such a minor concept but I promise it can make all the difference if you apply it to your life. Please believe me when I say if I can do it, then so can you. You aren’t alone and you are about to kick panic attacks in the ass!