As a practicing psychotherapist and a life coach, I'd helped many people cope with panic attacks but never had one myself. That is, until about three years ago, when I was having lunch with a friend and suddenly felt something akin to a 400-pound bear jumping up and down on my chest.
Making vague excuses to my friend, I found my way to a nearby urgent care center. After one look at my blood pressure, the staff sent me to a hospital, where I spent the next 24 hours hooked up to machines, being tested for every possible illness.
Even if your panic attack feels like the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, it's quite common.
Eventually, the hospital set me loose with the explanation that the symptoms I’d experienced had just been “a panic attack.” Relieved and bewildered, I was given a lot of sympathy but few instructions.
The following week, I went to see a psychiatrist, who suggested I might be conflicted about publishing my book, Love Cycles, and sent me off with medication. Her explanation didn’t hit home for me, however, so I tried something different. I went to see a Reiki master, who did energy work to rebalance my chakras.
Nothing helped. The attacks kept coming. I read everything I could about them and got blood tests from my family doctor, who looked for obscure tumors and hidden troubles. Everything was normal.
I took meditation classes, began to walk every day, and went to a hypnotist. I became gluten-free and dairy-free and looked for hidden conflicts, childhood traumas, and unresolved tensions in my life.
Finally, I went to see my regular therapist, who suggested the cause could be nothing more than some misfired adrenaline. We might never learn anything more about the panic attacks, he said, but there were several adjustments I could make to help make a difference, should I experience them again. This time the explanation felt true.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, generalized anxiety disorder affects close to 7 million people a ye.... In other words, even if your panic attack feels like the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, it's quite common.
We know very little about panic attacks, and many of the theories about them are only myths. Let's look at some of the most common myths and their countervailing truths.
Myth: A panic attack is about something: you just have to find the cause.
Truth: Panic attacks are a biological response, which may or may not have psychological components.
Most experts believe a panic attack is brought on by a combination of genetics, biology, environmental, and psychological factors. The cause for one person’s individual panic attacks, however, may never be known.
Myth: Panic attacks are a sign that you’re going crazy.
Truth: An inability to predict when a panic attack is going to happen might make you feel crazy, but you’re not.
The average panic attack usually lasts less than 10 minutes, but the fallout can continue longer. First comes the actual attack — the trouble breathing, the pounding heart, the alarmingly high blood pressure, and the tingling in your hands and feet, all of which might make you feel like you’re going to die.
You’re neither dying nor going crazy: Your body is experiencing a chemical rush, which you can learn to manage. Biology doesn't have to win.
Myth: Panic attacks cause extreme harm to your body.
Many of the symptoms associated with panic attacks are indeed frightening: Your body trembles and shakes and you feel shortness of breath. Some people hyperventilate and fear fainting. Your heart rate might go as high as 200 beats per minute, and you might feel like you’re having a heart attack.
Truth: When you go for a long run, it’s common for the heart rate to rise just as high. Because we expect this high heart rate when we’re running, it isn’t frightening. With a panic attack, of course, the fear comes from having a high heart rate for a reason you're not accustomed to.
Myth: Deep breathing can always stop a panic attack.
Truth: Holding your breath causes hyperventilation and an increase in carbon dioxide, which contributes to dizziness and numbness, which then raises your panic levels.
The one thing we must do, which can help immediately, is to breathe more slowly than usual. Learn about belly breathing exercises, but know that they might not always be enough on their own.
Myth: Nothing will help.
Truth: There are many tools in the arsenal to use for dealing with future panic attacks. Here are a few:
Even with decaf, you will put less stress on your nervous system.
The connection between sleep and well-being is more and more firmly established every day. To improve your sleep quality, never look at a computer or check your iPhone right before you go to sleep. And if you wake up during the night, use yoga breathing (deep belly breaths) to calm yourself back into rest.
Exercise is a natural anti-anxiety medicine. When I feel butterflies in my belly, I take a walk. Ninety percent of the time, the panic recedes. The exercise stops the panic from escalating into a full-blown attack.
I carry a list of all the tools in my toolbox, in case I lose the ability to focus when an attack hits. I also carry a low dose of anxiety medication as a last resort. Three years after my first panic attack, I have learned to head them off quickly and have never yet felt the need to use the meds.
One good thing that came out of my experiences with panic attacks has been my improved ability to help other people manage their attacks and to sidestep the many myths associated with them.