There are many things in life to be afraid of. You can be injured or killed in myriad ways. You can get lost. You can make a fool of yourself. Something can happen to your loved ones. Another terrorist attack can happen at any moment. So much to be frightened of. It’s enough to make you fearful of leaving your house!
And so you don’t. Or, you do with much trepidation. And when you do, you may feel your heart racing, your body trembling, your breathing tight. You may feel chest pain and wonder if you’re having a heart attack. You may feel sweaty and wonder why your body temperature is out of whack. You may feel dizzy, unsteady, faint and more.
This rush of fear, this overwhelming dread may strike you at any time. No one else seems to feel it.
What’s the matter with you? Are you going crazy? Are you losing it? Are you doomed to stay home for the rest of your life? Can you only go to a few places outside your home? Must you live a very narrow life?
You may be so embarrassed that you keep your fears and your symptoms secret. Though you may feel that what you experience is strange, it’s important for you to know that panic attacks are more prevalent than most people realize.
The word “panic” comes to us from the ancient Greeks. They were said to experience overwhelming terror when they encountered Pan, their god of nature. Pan was half man, half beast. He was said to have such an intense scream that frightened travelers who encountered him in the forest died from fear.
Though we no longer believe in Pan, people with panic attacks generally cope with their fears by avoiding places or situations where they might panic. Hence, they may find themselves avoiding social engagements, new experiences, travel, or being alone. Even just thinking about these situations may trigger intense anxiety.
In its milder forms, panic is endemic to many roles. Students panic before a test; actors panic before the curtain rises; businesspeople panic as deadlines draw near. But others panic just trying to get out of the house, breaking out in a cold sweat as they worry about everything. Do they have all their stuff? Will they get lost? Do they look okay? Did they forget something? Will they miss their train?
For those who don’t experience panic, it’s easy to say “Just relax.” “Take it easy.” “You’ll do fine.” Such advice, though usually well-intentioned, is considered glib by those who experience panic. Advice that’s given too easily, too offhandedly or too superficially is difficult to take seriously.
So, what should you do if you experience panic attacks? Here are steps for you to take that will put you on the road to recovery:
- Know what you are dealing with. You’re not crazy, cracking up or losing it.
- Get a thorough physical exam so you can rule out any serious somatic problem.
- Deliberately slow down your breathing to prevent hyperventilating, which can trigger panic symptoms.
- Instead of avoiding a feared situation, confront it head-on. Yes, you can take baby steps to do this as long as you are moving toward your fears, not away from them.
- Avoid using extreme language, such as “never” (my panic attacks will never end), “always” (I always lose control when I’m in an elevator) or “I’ll die” (If I have a panic attack on the train, I’ll die of embarrassment).
- Learn to shift your anxious mode of thinking to a more balanced one by using the prefrontal (rational) part of your brain.
- Consider working with a psychologist who is familiar with cognitive-behavioral therapy.
- Consider taking anti-anxiety medications. But do not rely solely on them. Learning skills to calm yourself down and approach (rather than avoid) what’s frightening will enable you to reclaim your life.
Woman panicking photo available from Shutterstock