Do you suffer from panic attacks where you feel like you can’t breathe or are going to die? Are you fearful about going to certain places in case it happens again? Do panic attacks make you feel like you’re going crazy?
In this article we’ll explore what causes panic attacks and look at the best – and most simple – ways you can conquer them.
It’s time to regain some control. Let’s start immediately…
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What is a panic attack?
Before we look at the best ways to deal with panic attacks we need to define what we’re talking about. A panic attack is a sudden rush of adrenaline that floods your blood stream, causing a variety of symptoms such as…
- Rapid (and shallow) breathing than can lead to hyperventilation
- Racing heart, palpitations and/or chest pain
- Headache and/or dizziness
- Racing thoughts and/or confusion
- Fears that you’re suffocating (because you can’t get enough air), having a mental breakdown, or are about to have a heart attack
All of these symptoms are a natural effect of having too much adrenaline in your system. The rapid heart rate and breathing, along with sweating and shaking is an attempt to burn off the excess adrenaline.
Therefore, panic attacks are a natural response to perceived danger; they are governed by the survival brain which fires off the fight-flight response. That’s what a panic attack is; the survival mechanism gone awry, working too well.
What causes panic attacks?
So if panic attacks are driven by the survival mechanism, what triggers them if there isn’t any immediate danger? What sets off the alarm reaction?
If there’s no tiger coming towards me, why am I reacting as if there is?
The number one cause of panic attacks is heightened background stress levels.
If you’re already feeling overwhelmed in your life, one more upset – big or small – can serve as ‘the straw that breaks the camel’s back’. It tips you over the edge into full blown adrenaline rush.
You experience all or some of the symptoms listed above, do you best to calm down, or make your excuses to remove yourself from the situation (if you can).
But why would background stress be heightened? This is where we need to explore emotional needs…
Panic attacks and unmet emotional needs
We feel overwhelmed in our lives – and the accompanying feelings of stress – when certain emotional needs are not being met.
Ask yourself these questions to help identify unmet emotional needs…
- Do you feel safe and secure in your home/school/work environment?
- Do you feel you are giving and receiving enough attention with other people?
- Do you feel emotionally connected to people in your life?
- Do you feel you have a sense of control in the way your life is going?
- Can you get time to yourself on a regular basis?
- Are you learning new things or has life become too routine?
- Is there at least one person in your life who accepts you as you are?
- Do you feel a sense of belonging in your community/neighbourhood?
- Do you feel a sense of status or recognition from others?
- Does your life have meaning and purpose?
The consequence of unmet needs is raised stress levels, which puts the emotional/survival brain on high alert. That’s the last thing you want if you’re prone to panic attacks. That’s when the ‘final straw’ can tip you over the edge.
RELATED CONTENT: Find out more about emotional needs and do a 5-minute assessment
How to stop panic attacks quickly
Assessing your emotional needs will give you a big picture analysis of where your life is at and point to areas that might need improving in some way.
But what can do you if you’re having a panic attack right now? Is there any method that can quickly help you calm down and regain control over the survival brain?
Fortunately there is…
Just as we have an inbuilt survival mechanism (the fight/flight response, otherwise known as the ‘sympathetic nervous system’) we also have a relaxation response (the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’). This can be switched on with a simple breathing technique which you can practise, no matter where you are.
The thing is that panic attacks are made worse by over-breathing; even if it feels like you’re not getting enough air during a panic attack, you’re actually getting too much oxygen into the system. We need a way to get less air. This is where 7/11 breathing can make a huge difference…
The 7-11 breathing technique
I’ve spoken about how to calm the emotional brain in my article about zen breathing, but let’s do a quick recap here…
With 7-11 breathing you breathe in to the count of 7 and out to the count of 11. The longer outbreath gets all that extra (and un-needed) oxygen out of your system.
If 7-11 is too much try 3-5. Find the right ratio for you. The key thing is to make the outbreath longer and focus on the numbers.
This serves two purposes…
- The longer outbreath triggers the relaxation response and you’ll soon start to notice yourself calming down – usually in just a minute or two
- By focusing on numbers you have to use your rational, logical brain – the part of the brain separate from the survival brain
In other words, 7-11 breathing not only calms the body but also the mind, helping your rational head to stay ‘online’. In effect, what 7-11 helps you to do is to separate yourself from the trance of panic. You’re able to keep part of your attention on something else (the breathing and the numbers).
Within just a few minutes you start to calm down and regain control of the survival brain. The adrenaline burns itself off.
Panic attacks and PTSD
Let’s be clear about something…
Experiencing a panic attack can be one of the most frightening things you’ll ever go through. Whilst it’s happening (and it can strike out of the blue) it really feels like you’re losing it.
This can leave an indelible mark on the subconscious mind. A template gets laid down that says, “Don’t come here again…avoid Tesco’s from now on…”
But a week later, the same thing happens in Lidl. This is because the brain has carried out a pattern match, erring on the side of caution. It’s assumed that because Lidl is similar enough to Tesco’s where the frightening incident occurred (aisles, shelves of produce, people with trolleys, queues at the check out etc.) it now fires off the fight/flight response again.
So you then avoid Lidl, then Aldi, then Sainsbury’s as the pattern gets triggered by similar enough stimuli. And maybe after then, the post office – or anywhere where there are similar triggers.
But a life of avoidance can lead to agoraphobia. You end up stuck at home.
Thus, the memories of panic attacks are very similar to the way PTSD works. A traumatic memory pattern seems to get ‘stuck’ in the emotional brain and is all too easily triggered.
How to turn off memories of panic attacks
So far we’ve look at some of the things you can do yourself to get control of panic attacks (assessing your emotional needs and applying 7-11 breathing). But what if those panic attack memories are now acting like traumas and need switching off?
The good news is that there is a method to do so, but it will probably require professional assistance.
There is a technique called the Rewind Technique that can remove the emotional component of the memory pattern. Remember, the emotion (fear) is the glue that holds the memory pattern in place. Once the emotion is dissipated the pattern falls away. Your brain tags it as ‘no longer important’.
You won’t forget the memories of panicking but the memories no longer have an emotional impact on you. You don’t get sucked into panic trances anymore.
RELATED CONTENT: Find out more about the Rewind Technique
Are you a therapist? Learn the Rewind Technique like thousands of other therapists and help your clients overcome PTSD and panic attacks fast
The AWARE technique
Before we end this article I’d like to offer you one more method to help you conquer panic attacks. It’s called the AWARE technique and is something you can apply whenever you need it…
AWARE is an acronym and stands for…
A – Accept whatever you’re feeling. If you’re having a panic attack simply accept it as nothing more than the survival mechanism working overtime. It’s like a faulty car alarm. It’s a quick adrenaline rush and it will pass
W – Watch and scale the intensity of the panic from 1 to 10. This helps you develop the Observing Self – the part of you that can step back from the trance of panic and see the bigger picture.
A – Act as normally as you can and attend to your breathing. This is where 7-11 breathing comes in.
R – Remind yourself of your resources; there is far more to you than those feelings of anxiety. Reflect on your skills, hobbies, interests, friendships, all the good things that make up the person you are.
E – Expect the best; see things going well. Having calmed down with 7-11 and gathered your resources, see yourself applying those resources in the future. This helps to lay down a more positive expectation in the brain.
RELATED CONTENT: Find out more about the Observing Self and the AWARE technique
The best ways to stop panic attacks: summary
I hope you’ve found this article helpful and that it’s given you real hope. There are things you can do right away to start calming down.
In summary, I’d encourage you to…
- Assess your emotional needs to identify stressors in your life
- Learn and master 7-11 breathing
- Apply the AWARE technique whenever needed
These simple – and natural – methods can soon help you regain mastery over your survival brain, letting it know who’s in charge.
If you feel you need professional help with panic attack memories or anything else find out more in a Free Discovery Session with me.