Picture this, you are driving on the highway and your hands begin to sweat, your heart begins to race. Your feet become numb and you can’t feel the brakes. You feel like you are losing control and do not feel yourself. You think you are having a heart attack. Although you may be experiencing many of the physical symptoms of a heart attack, in actuality, what you are experiencing is a panic attack.
Panic attacks are intense and plain dreadful; and they can strike when you least expect it. Their exact cause is unknown, but we do know that they are typically hereditary. So, if say your mother, father, aunt, uncle or grandparents have suffered from them, chances are you will too.
Oftentimes panic attacks can also be triggered by a painful event or major life event or stressor in your life, such as marriage, the birth of a baby, divorce, or death. Panic attacks are very possibly the body’s attempt to process the powerful feelings of loss, grief, or challenging event you have experienced.
The first time I experienced a panic attack I was 26 years old. I was heading north on the expressway. It was dusk and I was heading home following a church service that was held for my step-sister (22) who had died tragically in a motorcycle accident just a few weeks before. The attack came out of the blue and took me by complete surprise. It also terrified me. I thought I had completely lost my mind. It felt surreal and I couldn’t stop it.
After seeking therapy and learning ways to manage and prevent future panic attacks, and getting on a medication regime that worked for me, the panic episodes eventually subsided. Just when I thought I had been completely cured, they struck again. It was approximately 6 years later when I experienced my second panic episode, this time it was triggered by the birth of my second daughter who was born sick and nearly died. Those nine weeks she spent in the hospital were grueling, uncertain, and very traumatic. At that time I opted not to use medication as I was breastfeeding, but did seek the help of my trusted therapist to assist me through this painful experience. Slowly the panic attacks again began to subside. However, they decided to rear their ugly head again after my separation from my husband about three years later — yet another stressful life event.
Since my first panic attack occurred while driving, it seems that this is when my panic episodes now usually occur. However, for some people they may occur while sleeping, at the movie theater, or workplace, for example. While some people only experience one attack in their lifetime, most will experience them periodically throughout their lives.
At this moment, there are approximately 2.4 million Americans living with panic disorder. The good news is that therapy helps. Some days may be better than others, but learning the tools you need to learn to manage your panic attacks are extremely helpful in managing panic episodes. Your therapist can assist you with visualization and anxiety-reducing techniques, as well as with managing your overall stress levels.
Remember, when having panic attacks you feel “out of control”, but having a “sense” of control over your life can definitely assist in reducing the panic episodes. Cognitive behavioral therapy can change the way you think, feel and act in relation to a particular situation — in this case your fear-based thoughts. It has proven very effective in reducing anxiety levels and panic attacks.
Tips to keep in mind while experiencing a panic attack:
- Breathe. Oftentimes when we are in a state of panic, we take shallow breaths, especially when in a state of panic. Our body goes into the flight-or-fight mode and perceives normal places as threats. Deep breathing helps to activate the relaxation system in your brain which in turn helps to calm you down
- Use Positive Self-Talk. Talk yourself through the panic attack. Positive self-talk or statements, such as “I’ve done this before” or “this is just a panic attack” helps one get through the episode.
- Reach Out. If these things aren’t working, reach out to a trusted friend or family member that can help talk you through the panic attack. If you are driving, pull over or get off the highway and stop at a safe location. If you are unable to drive at all following the attack, call someone to pick you up
Tips to Reduce Symptoms of Panic Attacks:
- Exercise regularly
- Reduce daily caffeine intake
- Maintain a healthy and balanced diet
- Maintain a good sleep routine
- Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or visualization on a regular basis
- Do not avoid your triggers
Panic attacks are a serious matter and can undoubtedly change one’s life. There have been times where I have wondered if things would ever get better, when I have thought I would never get on a highway again, when I dreaded going on a long drive out of town. While having these feelings are normal, do not let panic attacks defeat you. Keep in mind that there is always help available and things WILL get better, even if it means taking things one day at a time. Above all, confront your fears. If you avoid your triggers, this may lead to agoraphobia, meaning you may never want to leave your house for fear of having a panic attack.
Although I still struggle almost daily with my fear of driving, I remind myself that if I had given in to my fear when I experienced my first panic attack 15 years ago, I would probably not be driving today.