Surviving and Coping with Panic Attacks
“If you know people who are suicidal, or if you know people who are bipolar, depressed, have panic attack disorder, just be there for them. They’re going through something that’s very, very hard. – Eric Millegan. (Actor) Eric Millegan on Living (and Acting) with Bipolar Disorder
Let me begin with the following disclaimer – No advice attained in ANY blog or in ANY article online is going to be a valid replacement for actual therapy or medical help. If you are suffering from regular panic attacks or an anxiety disorder please do yourself a favor and get help. No one should have to live in the sort of hell these often serious conditions can create.
Several years ago I suffered from one of the most horrifying experiences I have ever had. It was late in the evening when I was left alone with my thoughts when at once a sense of mortality overwhelmed my mind. I cannot fully put into words the experience psychologically but physically the result was intense fear, a racing heartbeat, and extreme hyperventilation. Pain emanated unforgivingly from my chest and though I was moderately aware of my surroundings I felt as though I was separate from them as I clutched at myself trembling and whimpering in my own little private hell. I can say with absolutely no reservation that this experience was one of the most truly frightening in my entire life.
What made it particularly bad, and trust me it was bad enough already, was the fact that I had no idea what was going on with my body. Fear and uncertainty led me to wonder if I was having a heart attack which of course snowballed the impact of the anxiety I was feeling to the point that I nearly passed out due to hyperventilation. Gasping for air I wept, a pathetic mess, until the experience slowly subsided on its own which left me in a heightened state at which point I suddenly vomited. Left confused and shaken I cleaned up the resulting mess and attempted to put the pieces back together.
What on Earth was that?
I had just experienced my first panic attack.
Understand that while science does have a fair handle of reasonable treatments for these events it does not have all the answers yet, as with many things we have some gaps of knowledge and thus more research is required but we do have some answers. For one thing we know that no “one thing” is actually the sole cause of panic attacks as we understand them. There certainly seems to be a genetic factor in panic disorder (though some people who develop them have no apparent familial history of it) and there would also appear to be environmental, stress and other health factors as well. Likewise from a more social position there are abuse factors that can present themselves such that frequently victims may report having been physically or sexually abused as children, which seems to be even truer for panic disorders than it does for other anxiety disorders generally.
For the victims of these horrifying events relief may be found in numerous fronts without immediate requirement to medication usage (though as I stated before that is really for a doctor to decide). This includes general improvement of personal hygiene, physical health, and psychological wellbeing much of which can be improved upon simply with better cleaning habits and some regular exercise. Also spending time actually talking with a trusted friend, loved one, or even a therapist, can help relieve other psychological stressors and help grant relief from some of these symptoms. My encouragement would be to take an active role in your own well being and as such actively work to improve the quality of your life by whatever means available to you.
Unfortunately for my particular circumstances no amount of ‘healthier choice living’ was going to bring an end to the problem as another attack hit me just a few days later, followed by another, and then another, and so on. I have to date suffered from hundreds of these horrifying and painful experiences and as such feel as though I can give a little advice on some of the best ways to deal with them as they happen. It is important to recognize the event for what it is but more important is gaining an actual handle on what your body is doing. Focus your attention on controlling your breathing keeping it as slow and steady as you can, which will in turn help your body continue to take in the oxygen it needs to maintain awareness. There is a tendency to breath faster in the face of fear or panic but understand that not only is this counter-productive it is also potentially harmful as rapid breathing can restrict oxygen from actually being absorbed into your bloodstream.
Try to breath slow.
Focus on attaining control and get your lungs to do their job one step at a time.
It WILL pass.
Von Korff, M., R., Eaton, W., W., and Keyl, P., M., (1984 and 1985) The Epidemiology of Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder Results of Three Community Surveys; Link: http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/122/6/970.short
Clark, D., M., Salkovskis, P., M., Chalkley, A., J., (2002) Respiratory control as a treatment for panic attacks; Link: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0005791685900266
Gorman, J., M., Askanazi, J., Liebowitz, M., R., Fyer, A., J., Stein, J., Kinney, J., M., Klein, D., F., (1984) Response to hyperventilation in a group of patients with panic disorder; The American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 141(7), Jul 1984, 857-861.
Laffey, J., G., Kavanagh, B., P., (1999) Carbon dioxide and the critically ill—too little of a good thing? Link: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673699023880