This post is to help you avoid my mistakes and learn a 5 step process on how to stop panic attacks. And believe me, how much better my life would have been If I knew this from the start.
I remember my first panic attack almost 20 years ago. Was on a morning riding the bus, I was in my early 20’s back then. I was going to the University and I remember having this physical symptoms, intense anxiety, feeling very bad, and just barely made it through class and went home.
After that everything changed. I started having repeated panic attacks, so I slowly started avoiding more and more activities and places to go until I reached the point of fearing even going outside the house (Agoraphobia).
During my first 3 years, I visited different doctors and it’s tough looking back on how little they knew about how anxiety disorder worked.
The first doctor told me I needed vitamins. Ha! Even then I knew this wasn’t a real solution.
The second doctor, a neurologist, knew a little more, he acknowledged I had a panic disorder, and gave me anxiety medication to be able to control the anxiety symptoms, which helped but it wasn’t enough. Only doing pills can help to feel a little better, however, it’s not a solution.
The third doctor was a mental health professional, a psychiatrist, and it was the “best” of the three. She gave me anxiety medication and got in me touch with a psychologist to do a treatment, however, the psychologist’s treatment we worked was incomplete, it only went through 1 of the 5 steps I will teach you plus some breathing technique.
At the moment even though it wasn’t good enough to overcome my panic disorder, it did help at the time. (by the way, medication is not bad as a complement to help you get better, however, they not going to help you overcome panic attacks and as a personal opinion I would suggest them in case you need something extra to get you started, but are not a requirement to help you stop a anxiety attack)
What helped me the most back then was when I decided to join a boxing club. It was doing the time I was doing the treatment with the psychologist. Exercise is a great thing you can do to lower anxiety, however, what helped me the most was how thanks to boxing I was able to gain a lot of confidence in myself and this was a turning point for me. The lack of confidence and low self-esteem because of the panic sensations can be one of the worst enemies because it keeps you in fear, so during this time even though the treatment by itself didn’t help me overcomes panic attacks, it did help me to gain the courage to start doing new things becuase I was sick and tired of being afraid of having recurrent panic attacks, and didn’t want to live the rest of my life like that.
After some time I stopped the treatment, I continued doing boxing since this made me feel better than anything else, and although I was able to keep doing my life normally for most of the time, there were some bad moments in between., and I was constantly afraid of having future panic attacks.
So I started researching for information about panic attacks and I read different books and information about the topic, and that is how I was able to come up with this 5 steps process and learn so much about mental health and panic attacks.
ANXIETY / PANIC ATTACKS OVERALL:
Anxiety is a mechanism everybody has, the difference is that the sensitization to it varies from different people. Some people have a high anxiety sensitivity to it and others much less, however, the physical sensations related to anxiety are the same for everybody.
The problem with people that suffers panic attacks is the intense fear of these sensations that are produced during the anxiety or panic cycle. And it’s important to understand that it is actually fear of fear what we experience because there is never any real danger or threat.
Let me explain to you about the panic cycle and how it works.
First, everything starts with anxiety, which we all know that produces some unpleasant sensations. Normally it can be an anticipatory sensation due to an activity we have to do that you think will make you feel uncomfortable or maybe have a panic attack.
You start overthinking about what will happen if these physical sensations get worse and how much you don’t want this to happen.
So when the moment comes closer (let’s say it’s going to a crowded place) This leads to stress and more fear which makes you feel more anxious, and more anxiety means you start feeling all the common panic attack symptoms which are very uncomfortable. This can be a fast heart rate, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, tingliness in your fingers, fast breathing, or any of the panic symptoms.
Since we notice this you start telling yourself “oh no, this is getting worse, I don’t want this!” which produces even more fear and more panic attack symptoms, so your anxiety increases again, along with the panic sensations.
This continues on and on until it stops at some point, however, this can be after you go through a full-blown panic attack (worst case scenario), or you go through a very high anxious state that it still is very unpleasant.
After having a panic attack or and intense anxiety episode you end up very tired, shaky, and just thinking about having frequent panic attacks in the future makes you makes you feel uncertain and being afraid.
It’s important for you to remember two things that always happen during a panic attack.
First, the anxious or panic cycle always occurs.
Second, it will always stop at some point, it doesn’t matter what you do.
Understanding the cycle means you can understand what is the trap that your mind does, and that is being afraid of being afraid, is being afraid of what if something worse happens, is being afraid of feeling uncomfortable, of being helpless, or any other bad sensation.
As you can see, you are the one who is overthinking and worrying about this, you internally you are fighting it because you don’t want to feel anxiety or fear, and this is exactly what makes us feel worse since the harder we try to fight these sensations, the more anxious we get and we feel threatened.
And when you feel threatened there is a self-defense mechanism that is activated, which is called the flight or fight response. This is a primitive self-defense mechanism that was designed to protect you from threats like running away from tigers, however, this mechanism hasn’t evolved over time. The difference is that this mechanism doesn’t make any difference if the fear or the threat is something real you can see or is something you imagine, either way, adrenaline is released and you feel a big wave of energy that starts accumulating which makes you feel shaky, and since there is no real danger to fight or run away from, this makes you even more confused because the energy is not being used.
As you can see there are a lot of things happening in your mind and body during a panic attack. But the good news is that since there is no real danger, it depends only on you to be able to overcome it and stop panic attacks being a burden in your life.
The step by step process to stop panic attacks is simple to learn, but I won’t lie to you, it takes time, practice, and courage to be able to consistently implement it, especially at the beginning since it will require to change your attitude and habits towards anxiety. Also, it’s completely normal to have setbacks during your journey, which makes us believe that is not working, however, it will likely happen and it’s totally fine. As long as you believe you can get better, you are brave and consistent, you will be able to stop panic attacks from your life, or a the very least make them much more bearable and being much less intense.
Overcoming panic attacks doesn’t mean that you won’t feel anxious anymore, this is very important to understand because in a moment of real danger this fight or flight response is meant to protect you so it’s ok to feel this in an extreme situation like that, but the problem is when you are constantly feeling a threat and fear where there is no real danger.
It means that you will learn that those sensations won’t hurt you, that there is no real danger, and you will embrace, not fight it when you are starting to feel an anxiety attack. In the end, you will learn how to desensitize from the anxiety so when you feel it, you will not interpret it as a threat.
STEP BY STEP ON HOW TO STOP A PANIC ATTACK
This step by step process is not a magic formula that will stop your panic symptoms immediately. And also as I explained before is not meant to eliminate anxiety.
It is meant to help you learn how to handle anxiety so it doesn’t bother you anymore and you can go on with your life and do all the things you’ve been avoiding because of being afraid of having future panic attacks.
I want you to truly live a happy life and feel free again. You deserve it because I know how tough is to live in constant fear, to keep inventing excuses to your friends or family, the unhappiness it brings, feeling lonely, the embarrassment of other people knowing about this and you worrying they might think you are crazy, and the lack of confidence in yourself. This disorder doesn’t define you at all as a person.
And the good news is that your recovery only depends on yourself so let’s get started:
1- INTERCEPTING THE ANXIETY CYCLE
As I was explaining before, the cycle starts with a low level of anxiety that as you worry and start having fear, it starts growing and growing, so the idea is to try to lower the speed on how this anxiety rises by intercepting the anxiety cycle.
The moment you are starting to feel anxious and your fear also starts to rise thinking about all the “what if’s” situations, stop that way of thinking and tell to yourself “Ok, whatever happens, happens”
You can phrase this any way you want. You can even swear if this helps.
And something extra that can be useful is to use humour.
For example, if you fear your heart races when you feel too anxious and you start sweating, you can say “Well, it’s always good to have your heart pumping, this makes a good exercise”
This doesn’t make much sense, however, that is the idea. The lighter approach to the situation helps you to start intercepting the Anxiety Cycle, and overall this change of attitude helps to lower the speed of the anxiety since you shift the focus from the fear.
The acceptance step is focused so you stop fighting the feelings you are having. The more you fight it the worse it gets.
Remember that the anxiety sensations even though they are uncomfortable, are completely normal. They are part of your body self-defense mechanism, the fight or flight response, so there is nothing wrong with you.
Acceptance is a key part so you are able to stop panic attacks because it’s what helps you change your attitude from fear, from worry, and to stop fighting these sensations.
You tell to yourself, “I welcome and accept these feelings, I truly welcome and accept these sensations”
Even if you feel the complete opposite, it is important you tell this to yourself and allow the sensations without resisting them. The more you practice, the more it will help you to accept and even embrace it. Remember they are just feelings, nothing else, so they can’t hurt you.
You are also free to phrase it any way you like.
As you can see this is a counter-intuitive reaction of what we normally do, so that is why it ‘s important to keep practicing and being aware of your old ways of facing anxiety that was actually making things worse.
3- GO WITH THE FLOW
After you accept the anxious sensations will be flowing through your body. Let them be. They are just visitors and they will go eventually.
In the meantime, the importance of this step is to just go along those sensations.
I know they very uncomfortable sensations and that it can get quite hard to do, but just hang in there and let them be without fighting against them.
Imagine you are in the ocean and there is a big wave coming. If you fight it and go against it things will get really tough. Much better is to just go with it. This is the idea of step 3.
This step is something you can put more time if you have the chance to do it because I know in other circumstances you won’t be able to take your time as much. That is fine, you can give as much time as you want.
Just remember that this step it’s all about letting go and flowing with the sensations without fighting them.
4- GO FOR IT, ASK FOR MORE
The first three steps in many cases can be enough to help you to feel calmer and safer, which means you can go directly to step 5.
However that is not always the case, so if you still feel a threat and your anxiety keeps rising then we go to step 4, although you are always free to apply it any time you want.
When you feel anxious, these sensations are the same as when you feel excited about something. For example, if you are in a roller coaster.
Anxiety and fear activates the flight or fight response that generates a big wave of energy. Remember that the fight or flight response is a primitive self-defense mechanism that is meant to protect you in dangerous situations, for example running away from a tiger.
Running takes a lot of energy, so this mechanism is meant to give you that instant energy to use it to run away fast. Since there is no real danger and there is nothing to fight or run from, this energy accumulates in your body.
The concept in this step is that when you feel anxious and have this energy flowing, you can change the way you interpret this flow of energy from fear to excitement, from something negative to something positive.
When you are excited about something you also feel that same rush of energy flowing, that is why when you feel excited you have a strong urge to jump, run or somehow express it with your body.
What you say to yourself is “I feel excited, this is great, yeah!”
Again, you can phrase it any way you like.
And remember that even though this is something you might not believe at the moment, the key here is to keep practicing and you will get to the point were those sensations won’t scare you anymore, meaning you will be able to change the interpretation you currently have.
There is a second part of this step, in case the anxiety keeps increasing to the point of a panic attack.
After you say to yourself how excited you are about these sensations, then you start asking for more of it.
For example, if you are afraid of heart pounding too fast, say to yourself “Oh, is that it? I want more, I want the heart rate to pound faster and faster, give me more!”
Maybe it’s a feeling of fainting and dizziness, so you can say “Good! I want to feel dizzier, give me your worst, come on, I’m waiting for it!”
This approach can actually sound very scary, but what happens here is that you call out the bluff. Remember that there is no real danger, no real threat, and when you demand more of it, what actually happens is that you change your attitude from the fear and since you are asking for more, your emotional part of the brain gets kind of confused, because if the danger was real you wouldn’t be asking for more, so if done correctly you will notice the results fast.
When you change this attitude is when you start to feel better. Remember that the sensations from anxiety are completely normal, so it’s how you interpret these sensations the key part to stop and overcoming panic attacks. It’s the fear of fear what makes you fall into all this anxiety trap.
When you face the anxiety head-on and you ask for more of the sensations, this counter-intuitive attitude actually gives you back the power because you are the one that now is taking the lead, and it’s not possible to have more of it once the fear is no longer there.
Your emotional response will know that if you are asking for more, then there is no real danger.
5- REFOCUS ON AN ACTIVITY
Now it’s time to change your focus back to whatever you were doing, or looking for something you can be busy.
The goal of this step is not to ignore the sensations, however, after you already acknowledge and accepted them, then you even took the lead and ask for more, now focusing in a task or activity is important because it takes your mind from the possibility to keep checking yourself all the time to see if everything if the is any panic attack symptom.
It’s important to understand that in this step the anxious sensations are present, however, what is important is that you can move on with your life because this anxious feeling won’t be bothering you anymore. You will acknowledge them as what they are just sensations.
Getting on with your life is what’s important. At first, you will still be bothered by these sensations and thoughts, that is why it’s so important to keep practicing, knowing that you are fine, you are safe, and that setbacks are just a normal part of the process of becoming better.
These steps are meant to help you get out of the anxiety cycle, get out of that trap.
Always remember that there is nothing wrong with you. Although I would suggest checking with a doctor and do any exam you like in case you think you might have an underlying condition if this helps you to make sure you are fine.
Still, the anxiety symptoms you feel are a normal thing that happens with this kind of anxiety disorder. A lot of people because of the extreme anxiety sensitivity think they are dying or that they may have a heart attack, but with panic attacks, this is not the case, it’s just the intense fear that makes some people believe this.
Take into consideration that your body needs to get into the new habit of going through this process, so at the beginning, you have to consciously be going through all the steps, because you unconsciously will try to fight the sensations and face the fears as you have always done.
Also, your mind needs to learn to interpret those sensations as something that is not dangerous. Normally your mind quickly interprets it as a threat, so you have to unlearn this by teaching it to interpret it as what it is. Just some anxious sensations were there is no real threat.
Practice and courage are key. Setbacks are completely normal, so don’t get discouraged by it. Just keep practicing. I have repeated this several times but it’s because it’s very important to remember.
Most of these steps I have learned it from a book called DARE by Barry McDonough. I would encourage you to get a copy. You can find it in Amazon by clicking here. (it is an affiliate link)
It will explain more in-depth about why this approach works, more about the steps and the science behind it. (cognitive behavioural therapy)
Something else you can do that will help you lower your anxiety overall.
- Lower your caffeine and alcohol (Even better if you can completely get rid of them)
- Eat healthy
- Sleep well
- Deep breathing (or any breathing exercise)
- Meditation or relaxation techniques
Having panic attacks is a mental illness that is really scary, and you never really know how bad it can be until you have experienced it yourself, that is why it’s hard for other people to understand what is happening, the stress you go through, and you end up feeling lonely, even thinking that you might be crazy or even developing agoraphobia.
Severe anxiety takes a lot out of you, mentally and physically as well. After a panic attack, once you are able to cool down, you feel really tired.
The good news is that you are the one who has the power to overcome it and put an end to your panic attacks.
These steps are meant to help you, as a panic attack sufferer, to have a better understanding of the anxiety trap and following them will give you the right approach on how to face it, allowing you to be free and happier with yourself and your life.
Keep on practicing and don’t compare yourself with others. Don’t know how long it will take you, it’s different for different people, but it’s not a race, this is a marathon and as long as you keep on going you will be and feel much better.
Being able to live a life with severe anxiety requires a great amount of courage. So now it’s time you use that same courage to stop panic attacks once and for all and hope this approach can be a life-changer for you and your loved ones.