Three nights ago on Sunday night around 10:00 p.m, I was sitting in the waiting room of a psychiatric hospital, hyperventilating, ugly-crying and feeling like my chest was going to explode. Why? I was in the middle of a panic attack, the first one I had in a few years. It was particularly terrible and I felt like I was dying. It was probably an overreaction to go to the hospital in the first place but I hadn’t experienced that level of panic attack ever and I was concerned that something was seriously wrong. Most panic attacks end within 20 to 30 minutes and rarely last more than an hour. Mine lasted over two hours. Since that night, I’ve had two other panic attacks on Monday and Tuesday, both around the same time of night. Instead of going to the hospital again though, I stayed home and tried to practice my box breathing, a technique I had learned at the hospital and from my therapist. Eventually, the terrible feeling subsided and I was able to feel normal again.
The first panic attack, and subsequent panic attacks, started off slowly, like a dull ache in my chest and mild discomfort. I felt restless and unable to focus on the episode of the Mindy Project that I was watching. The feeling of discomfort worsened to the point where I was unable to sit still and pay attention at all to the episode or to anything else for that matter. I started to feel like I was unable to breathe and that’s when the feeling that I was going to die started. I felt like I had no control and that the symptoms were going to last forever. I felt like I was going insane because the pain was so unbearable and felt like it was never-ending.
It’s common for people who are having a panic attack to go to the hospital when they occur, especially if it’s never happened before. The symptoms can often feel like a heart attack. They include:
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Chest pain
- Trembling or shaking
- Choking feeling
- Feeling unreal
- Feeling dizzy
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Hot or cold flashes
- Fear of dying
The Mighty has a great article with quotes from twenty-four people who’ve been there, who describe what it was like for them to have a panic attack. Their descriptions range from saying it feels like “drowning in a pool”, “every part of your body is in overdrive but there is no brake pedal”, “an elephant is sitting on your chest” or “a pressure cooker boiling with a lid.”
Panic attacks are common and are easily treatable- according to my research. However, it’s hard to keep that in mind when you are in the middle of one. It can feel like it will last forever. And when they are over – it can be terrifying to imagine that it might happen again. I felt grateful for the ability to sit still and feel at peace and breathe normally. I will never take that for granted again.
So how do people treat a panic attack or prevent a panic attack from worsening?
For me, I spoke with a psychiatrist this morning and they said that the panic attacks were part of the likely akathisia (restlessness) that was occurring as a side effect of a recent medication change when I increased my Latuda. I am lowering the dose tonight so we will see if it occurs again.
However, while you are in the middle of a panic attack or while the symptoms are slowly building, you can:
- Use coping statements: While you are in the middle of a panic attack, you are likely imagining the worst and thinking that you are going to die or go insane. By challenging those thoughts and trying to force yourself to think positively, you can potentially prevent yourself from hyperventilating which makes the panic attack worse. You can gain skills in developing these coping statements and challenging cataclysmic thinking through cognitive behavioral therapy. I’ve recently started to learn some strategies and I am excited to put them in practice. Using coping statements will help you take control of your symptoms and the situation.
- Focus on the present: Instead of worrying about what will happen in the future or whether your panic attack will get worse, focus on trying to distract yourself from the anxious thoughts. Learning aspects and principles of mindfulness can help with this. “Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment.” There are many therapies that incorporate mindfulness techniques. Another way to remain in the present is to try to keep doing what you were doing before the symptoms started to occur, instead of letting your brain give in to catastrophic thoughts. Make sure to try to engage one or more of your five senses: taste, smell, sight, sound, or touch. For me, the feeling of having my partner’s hand rubbing my back was soothing. Listening to a favourite song or drinking something cold has also helped. Engaging the senses can also help with any symptoms of derealisation or depersonalization that may occur.
- Control your breathing: There are many ways you can do this, including the box breathing that I mentioned earlier. A panic attack feels like you can’t breathe, but it is not your reality. If you continue to engage in shallow breathing, it will only worsen that attack. What worked for me was deep breathing with my diaphragm, slowly counting to ten, and repeating this over and over until the panicked feeling went away.
- Avoid leaving: If you remain where you are when the panic attack began and let the panic attack resolve, your brain will not retain the fact that this type of situation is stressful or dangerous, thereby helping you prevent another attack from occurring and preventing you from being fearful of that situation.
And how can you prevent an attack from occurring in the first place? It’s not entirely 100 per cent possible to prevent it, but you can work with a therapist to address your triggers and build skills to deal with anxious thoughts. You can take anti-anxiety medication, if that is something that interests you. You can take care of your body by eating well and exercising. And most importantly – you need to talk about how you are feeling. Don’t be afraid to express yourself and let your thoughts out when you need to. Find a trusted friend or family member to share your experiences with. And always make sure to mention it to your doctor – they can provide you with the proper resources to get the treatment you need.
Have you ever had a panic attack? What did you do in the moment? Do you have any strategies for dealing with them? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!