Unraveling the Storm: Developing Panic Attack Coping Skills

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Panic attacks can strike suddenly. They are fierce and overwhelming and can engulf you in a whirlwind of emotions. Episodes of panic attacks are characterized by intense fear and physical discomfort, which leave you feeling powerless and isolated from others around you.

This article offers insights into understanding, managing, and overcoming these vicious episodes. Read more to learn about panic attacks and the coping strategies you can learn, tailored according to your needs. 

Understanding panic attacks

Panic attacks are often described as sudden, intense episodes of fear and anxiety. They can reach the peak within minutes and may last for almost half an hour.

They are accompanied by various psychological and physiological symptoms, including increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, heat sensations, and chills. Sufferers also often describe a feeling of being detached from the environment or even from themselves. 

The mechanism behind panic attacks combines biological, psychological, and environmental factors:

  • Biological factors. Genes can play a significant role in the onset of panic attacks, as panic attacks tend to run in families. The imbalance in neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine also contributes to the onset of panic attacks.
  • Psychological factors. Different psychological factors contribute to the development of panic attacks. Often, people who tend to interpret bodily sensations as signs of imminent danger or people having a history of anxiety disorders are more prone to panic attacks. 
  • Environmental factors. Stressful life events or major life changes can serve as a trigger for panic attacks. These events overwhelm your coping mechanisms and increase your chances of experiencing anxiety. 

In some cases, panic attacks may also be the result of some learned response, i.e., you may develop a conditioned response to certain stimuli linked to your past. This often leads to anticipatory anxiety, where the fear of experiencing another panic attack becomes a self-perpetuating cycle itself. 

Some other factors that can trigger panic attacks may include the following:

  • Traumatic experiences. Physical or emotional abuse, natural disasters, or accidents.
  • Phobias or fears. For example, someone with a fear of heights (acrophobia) may experience a panic attack when faced with the prospect of climbing a tall ladder or being in a high-rise building.
  • Certain medications or substances. Substances like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and certain prescription medications can induce panic attacks.

Practical coping strategies

The development of personalized coping strategies is of utmost importance. Exploring different strategies and finding what suits you the best can help you manage panic disorders effectively. No matter what coping strategy you use, practicing it in daily life is the best way to deal with it. 

Below are a few coping strategies that can help you manage your panic attacks effectively.

Grounding techniques

Grounding techniques are psychological techniques that can help you when experiencing distressing symptoms. They can help you connect with the present moment and eliminate the overwhelming sensations. These techniques work by engaging the senses and redirecting them away from disturbing thoughts or physical sensations.

Following is an elaboration of some grounding techniques to help you navigate challenging times with greater resilience and self-awareness. 

  • Sensory Awareness involves focusing on immediate sensations. An example is the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise, which helps you identify specific sensory stimuli around you and reduce anxiety. It involves identifying five things you see, four things you touch, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste in your immediate surroundings. By actively observing and naming these sensations, such as the object you see, the texture of the surface you touch, and the sounds you hear around you, you can divert your attention from anxious thoughts and ground yourself in the present moment.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is one of the most effective exercises. It involves tensing and relaxing different groups of muscles in your body. By doing this, you alternate between tension and relaxation, releasing physical tension and feeling a sense of relaxation throughout your body. This technique is very effective in reducing the physical symptoms of anxiety, including muscular tension, trembling, etc. 
  • Visualization often involves mentally picturing a safe place and adding vivid details such as sight, sound, smell, etc. By engaging in this technique, you can temporarily escape the distressful situation and feel comfort. 
  • Carrying a grounding object such as a smooth stone, a favorite trinket, or a fabric can provide comfort during times of distress. Focusing on the weight, texture, or temperature of the object can help anchor you in the present moment and provide a sense of security. 
  • Mindfulness meditation involves bringing nonjudgmental awareness to the present moment, which may include thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and external stimuli. Practicing mindfulness regularly, you can develop resilience to stress and anxiety and learn to respond to difficult emotions more skillfully. 
  • Engaging in self-soothing activities such as taking a warm bath, listening to calm music, and practicing gentle stretching exercises can help you regulate your emotions and relax. Such exercises may also help you relieve stress and engage in self-care.

Breathing exercises

Breathing exercises are very effective in managing stress, anxiety, and panic attacks. They can help you relax by regulating the body’s physiological responses. You can stay calm and improve your well-being by practicing these exercises daily. Mentioned below are some of the common breathing exercises:

Diaphragmatic breathing (deep belly breathing)

Deep belly exercises involve the diaphragm, a large muscle located below the lungs. It helps you promote deep and slow breaths. It also helps reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, improve oxygen circulation, and activate the body’s natural relaxation response.

Here are steps to practice diaphragm breathing:

  1. Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  2. Place one hand on your abdomen and another one on the chest.
  3. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. At this point, allow your abdomen to rise as you fill your lungs with air. Try to keep the hand placed on your chest still.
  4. Exhale slowly through your mouth completely. At this point, feel your abdomen fall as you release air, and focus on keeping the hand on your chest still.
  5. Repeat this process for several breaths.

Box breathing (square breathing)

Box breathing is a technique that involves equalizing each length of inhalation, hold, exhalation, and hold. It helps regulate breath, calm the nervous system, increase focus and concentration, reduce anxiety, and promote a sense of balance.

To practice this exercise, follow these steps:

  1. Inhale deeply through your nose. Count to number 4 while feeling your lungs fully expanding.
  2. Hold your breath till the count of 4 while maintaining a sense of calm.
  3. Exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of 4 while releasing stress.
  4. Hold your breath again for a count of 4 before starting your next inhalation.
  5. Repeat this process several times while focusing on your breath’s rhythmic patterns. 

4-7-8 breathing (relaxing breath)

Dr. Andrew Well made this breathing exercise famous. It involves a specific ratio of inhaling, holding, and exhaling to relax. This exercise is known for its calming effect on nervous stress. It also helps reduce stress and anxiety, promote better sleep, and manage cravings and impulses. 

To practice 4-7-8 breathing, follow these steps:

  1. Start by sitting or lying down in a comfortable position.
  2. Inhale deeply through your nose and count to 4 while filling your lungs with air.
  3. Hold your breath till the count of 7; at this point, allow your body to absorb oxygen and relax.
  4. Exhale slowly and completely through your mouth till the count of 8. Release tension with your breath.
  5. Repeat this process several times. Each exhalation should last longer than the inhalation and focus on the breath’s calming effects. 

Cognitive behavioral techniques

Cognitive behavioral therapy is widely used to treat different mental health conditions, such as panic and anxiety disorders. This therapy works on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, as these are all interconnected. This helps identify maladaptive thoughts and patterns, and working on these maladaptive patterns can help improve your mental health. 

Here are some key practices of CBT that can help you address panic attacks:

Identification of negative thought patterns

This is the main technique of CBT, as it helps to challenge negative thought patterns, also called negative distortions. These distortions include catastrophization (expectation of the worst outcome), black-and-white thinking (seeing things in extremes), and personalization (taking responsibility for things outside of your control). Identification of these patterns helps you to determine their accuracy.

Cognitive restructuring

This step involves examining the proof for and against the thought, generating an explanation, and reaching a more balanced and realistic conclusion. For example, instead of catastrophizing about the consequences of a panic attack (“I’m going to die”), you might reframe the thought as a temporary and manageable experience (“I’ve gotten through panic attacks before, and I can cope with this one”).

Skill-building and coping strategies

These may include problem-solving skills, assertiveness training, time management techniques, and social skills training. By building a toolkit of effective coping strategies, you can feel more empowered to face challenges and confidently navigate difficult situations.

In conclusion

Panic attacks may cast a dark shadow over your life, but with the right coping skills, you can emerge from the depths of despair into the light of resilience. By understanding the intricacies of panic attacks, implementing practical coping strategies, and embracing holistic approaches like grounding techniques, breathing exercises, and cognitive-behavioral techniques, you can navigate the turbulent waters of anxiety with confidence and courage. 

Remember, you are not alone in this journey. Reach out for support, seek professional guidance, and embark on healing. Let’s unravel the storm of panic attacks and emerge stronger than ever before.

If you or someone you know is struggling with panic attacks, take the first step toward healing by seeking support from a mental health professional or reaching out to a trusted support network. With perseverance and support, you can overcome the challenges of panic attacks and reclaim your life.

If you would like to see more resources on anxiety disorders, check out the Personal Resilience Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Visit the Personal Resilience Science Labs today.

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