Panic attacks: Attack back and stop the cycle of panic
I woke up to a familiar feeling: I had to throw up. Not because I had food poisoning or was sick with the flu. I knew this feeling well enough. My heart was racing, my mind dizzy with thoughts, my guts twisted in a knot. Sweaty, shaky, and short of breath at 4AM I was having a panic attack.
Asleep next to me, oblivious to what was going on was my newly-minted ex boyfriend. Earlier in the night, I'd decided it was time to break up. I'd had enough of our on-again off-again non-relationship that somehow persisted over the course of nearly 4 years. I decided to advocate for myself and what I knew I deserved and he predictably responded that he thought it would be best if we stopped "hanging out."
Even though I'd been the one to make the call to end things, I found myself in the throes of the worst sort of manifestation of my predisposition to anxiety: a full blown panic attack. In the middle of the night, shaky and sick, I got up to go through the motions of the panic routine I thought I'd broken myself of years prior. This time though, I decided it needed to stop.
What is a panic attack?
Perhaps this sounds familiar. Maybe you experienced a breakup like I did and felt your food come up amid uncontrollable crying. Maybe you've felt your breath go short and your head get dizzy before boarding a flight. Maybe you felt a cold sweat and overwhelming claustrophobia creep in among a crowd.
While it's difficult to gauge how many individuals suffer from a panic disorder, it's estimated that almost everyone will experience a panic event at least once in their lives. While many different people can experience panic attacks, the symptoms are shockingly similar, mimicking a heart attack or an equally devastating, fatal health event.
Panic attacks are characterized by feelings of acute fear and dread compounded by physiological symptoms like cold sweats, elevated heart rate, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, and fainting. It's not pleasant, to say the least, but what exactly is a panic attack?
Although we are all human, we are still driven by many of the basic instincts that kept our early ancestors alive. The emotion of fear is one such residual attribute. When early humans encountered a threat, our fear instincts kicked in triggering the age-old fight or flight response.
Fear is a gift that has helped us survive, but it's also a curse, especially in the case of extreme panic. Panic occurs when our natural fight/flight response in our nervous system is triggered by a perceived threat. That threat could be something like a stranger pointing a gun at you. Or it could be something fairly innocuous that our minds decide is a threat like flying on an airplane or public speaking.
This is especially difficult for people with preexisting anxiety conditions such as PTSD, bipolar disorder, or depression where the effects of normal stimuli are often magnified or mis-categorized as threats in our brains. Regardless of the trigger, the ensuing panic attack is still the same.
I knew from my past experience that this post-breakup, middle of the night panic attack was not going to be a one-off event for me. And just as I'd anticipated, the cycle of panic attacks persisted for weeks. I barely slept and when I did, I was riddled with horrific nightmares that robbed me of rest. I couldn't eat and in the rare times I was able to stomach food, it threatened to come up for hours after. I suffered heart attack symptoms daily and was completely unable to function, work, or be around people.
Even when I'd start to find some peace, fear of another panic attack compounded by residual sadness from the breakup would trigger another attack. I was stuck in a panic cycle.
How the hell does this happen?
Perhaps one of the worst pillars of panic attacks is that they are self-perpetuating. Fear of another panic attack will trigger, well, another panic attack launching a cycle that can go on for days, weeks, or even years.
It begins with an initial event -- in my case a shitty breakup -- and then a severe reaction to that event -- a panic attack.
The issue is that once you suffer that extreme reaction to your fear, you begin to fear another panic reaction just as much (if not more) than the initial stressor. The result is a seemingly endless string of attacks. You panic about panicking.
Panic attacks can feel like a complete loss of control over your emotions and your body. No one asks for a panic attack. They just creep in and take hold and next thing you know you're on the floor. But you can ask them to stop.
Self talk may seem silly, but pulling your rational mind out of a panic attack is the key to getting your body's reaction to stop. Whether you've had a panic attack before and know the symptoms or are experiencing one for the first time in your life, stop and tell yourself "I'm having a panic attack. I acknowledge that this is uncomfortable. I'm going to be ok."
It doesn't matter how silly you may sound, say it out loud to yourself. Here's why:
- Acknowledging that you are having a panic attack helps move your mind from thinking that you're having a heart attack or medical emergency which further perpetuates your panic. Once you understand that you're having an extreme reaction to a perceived threat, you can begin to dismantle the physical reaction to that threat.
- Furthermore, acceptance of this highly uncomfortable state helps stop the fuel that makes it burn. As I mentioned before, you panic about panicking. Once you gain composure in the midst of a panic event, even if you're still experiencing symptoms, you can cut off the fuel source to a prolonged response.
- Telling yourself you're going to be ok is the most important step. Once you've established that you're not having a heart attack and you understand your discomfort, telling yourself that you're going to be ok and that it's ok to have a panic attack will help rewire your brain.
It's unfortunate to think that panic can become a routine, but once you start implementing self talk, it can help you make sense of what's going on, what to expect, and how to handle it. Once you know your panic attacks, you can talk yourself out of them. At the onset of symptoms, you can tell yourself "ok, I am having a panic attack. My heart is going to race, I'm going to be sweaty and cold, and it's going to last about 60 minutes. Last time this happened, taking a warm shower helped."
I call this a panic attack road map. Not only do you acknowledge what's going on, you start to keep track of what triggers your panic and the best ways you've found to deal with it. That way, each panic attack isn't an isolated incident. You have a strategy for getting through it.
Self talk isn't an instant solution. Staring at yourself in the mirror and saying this mantra out loud over and over won't make your symptoms disappear instantaneously. But what it will do is create a routine to rewire your brain. Once you understand your panic and recognize the symptoms, your brain will begin to realize there is no point in putting you through the motions over routine threats.
When self talk isn't enough
As the sort of person who practices what I preach, I found myself in a panic routine almost daily following my breakup and each time I attempted to talk myself out of it. But the problem was, my trigger was difficult to pin down. Why was my brain perceiving a breakup as a threat? What the hell is specifically causing this? My trigger wasn't as cut and dry as being afraid to get on a plane. It was this nebulous dread, sadness, and stress that didn't seem to have any specific attribute I could attack.
Most of the time our panic triggers are not specific enough to confront directly. This was the case for me and as a result, I'd entered into an insurmountable panic cycle that disrupted my ability to function for weeks. I knew I needed to do something about it, but I didn't know what.
In the past, I'd turned to antidepressants to dull the world just enough that nothing would trigger me. And while this was great for stopping panic cycles, it robbed me of all other emotions.
I'd be able to go out and be social, but I felt like only my body was present and I was uninterested and distant. I'd be able to go to work, but I was only going through the motions, uninspired and unmotivated to do anything above the bare minimum. I'd gain weight, but instead of feeling bad, I simply didn't care about the state of my body.
After weeks of post-breakup panic, I knew it had to stop but I didn't want it to be antidepressants. Desperate, hungry, and exhausted, I turned to my friend Diana who is a naturopath and acupuncturist. She recommended three supplements: One to help with sleep, one to help regulate my mood, and a cortisol-reducer to help manage my stress hormones that were running rampant in my system.
Skeptical, I tried all three and within a few hours, I was able to eat my first meal, fall asleep, and sleep soundly through the night. My panic attacks began to drop off until eventually they stopped all together. While I still felt some residual sadness, it didn't seem to trigger panic events the way that it had prior to then. Slowly, I felt my mind and body return to normal.
In addition to self talk, the supplement routine helped me get back to a place of normalcy so I could begin the healing process without being numbed of all emotions the way antidepressants had in the past. I realized that sometimes self talk would only help in the moment, but not necessarily in the long term.
Taking a natural approach to regulating my stress hormones and sleep cycle took the edge off just enough that I could properly process my breakup without launching into panic attacks. With ingredients that have been used for centuries to help people even out their moods, I was able to calm my mind without the intervention of pharmaceuticals. While this approach may not be for everyone, I wanted to share because it truly helped me find some peace of mind when I felt stuck in a cycle of stress and panic.
That's a big part of the reason I launched Tough Self Love: to help other women break out of panic cycles naturally and without heavy intervention so you can process your stress constructively. I've adapted the formulas that helped me with sleep, mood regulation, and cortisol reduction and I wanted to share in the hopes that this helps someone else through a seemingly insurmountable stressful time.
At Tough Self Love, that's what we stand for: a no bullshit approach to natural health so we as women can go on with our lives even when the odds are stacked against us. Never doubt the power of your own self talk, and I hope these strategies help you if you find yourself in the throes of a panic attack.