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Mastering Panic Attacks: A Holistic Approach for Reducing and Preventing Panic

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Do you have panic attacks?

Panic attacks are characterized by intense and overwhelming feelings of terror. Panic attacks can be both distressing and debilitating. Lasting anywhere from seconds to minutes, these episodes often evoke a sense of losing control or impending doom. Accompanied by a cascade of physiological responses, panic attacks can manifest as a racing heart, sweating, rapid breathing, trembling, and more. The origins are often traced back to the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, responding to triggers, sometimes unbeknownst to the individual. This article will help you in your attempts at reducing and preventing panic.


Understanding Panic Attacks

Panic attacks can be triggered by various stimuli, ranging from situations and smells to sounds or feelings deeply rooted in fears or associative memories. They tend to occur disproportionately to the actual threat level, and recurrent episodes can lead to heightened anxiety, creating a cycle that’s challenging to break.


Overcoming the Urge to Escape

One counterintuitive but crucial aspect of managing panic attacks is resisting the urge to escape the situation. Despite the discomfort, it’s vital to recognize that panic attacks, though distressing, cannot physically harm. Fleeing or avoiding may provide temporary relief but reinforce the attack’s power in the long term. Staying in the situation allows the amygdala to learn that it is safe, diminishing the likelihood of future attacks.


Coping Strategies During an Attack

When panic begins to rise, adopting strategies that diminish the influence of the logical thinking part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) can prevent an escalation. Here are some key actions to take:

  1. Recognize It’s Only a Feeling:
    • Interpret the symptoms as a panic attack rather than a life-threatening situation. Avoid adding unnecessary fear to the experience.
  2. Don’t Worry About Others’ Judgments:
    • Resist the urge to predict what others might be thinking. Trust that your prefrontal cortex’s predictions are likely incorrect and can intensify stress.
  3. Avoid Obsessive Focus:
    • Refrain from fixating on when the next panic attack might occur. Focusing on bodily sensations can inadvertently contribute to triggering an attack.


Exercises for Panic Attack Reduction

  1. Deep Abdominal Breathing:
  • Combat hyperventilation, a common symptom, by practicing conscious deep breathing. Sit comfortably, placing a hand on the chest and stomach. Inhale slowly and deeply, allowing the stomach to rise, focusing on abdominal expansion.   Research indicates that incorporating breathing exercises into one’s routine can act as a preventive measure against the activation of the fight or flight response in the brain, a key contributor to panic. This will help you be more effective in reducing and preventing panic.


2. Physical Exercise:

  • As long as you have been cleared by your medical provider, if possible, engage in physical activity during a panic attack. Use the body’s emergency arousal system to your advantage. Brisk walking or running can utilize the prepared muscles, burn off excess adrenaline, and acclimate the body to physical changes.


Visualization Techniques

  1. Safe Space Imagery:
  • During moments of calm, practice visualizing a safe and tranquil place. Focus on the sensory details—sounds, smells, and textures. If any stress enters your safe space, imagine something there that whisks it away. It could be a cloud, a breeze, a wave, or a bird. When panic arises, mentally transport yourself to this haven. Again, focus on the sensory details—sounds, smells, and textures—to ground yourself. This technique is more helpful when you practice doing this safe space visualization when in a calm state and not panicked, so when you do it during periods of panic, you have already conditioned your body to relax.
  1. Balloon Visualization:
  • When you notice you are getting in a panicky state, imagine a balloon representing your anxiety. Take a slow, deep breath, and as you breathe out slowly, imagine releasing the balloon into the sky, and watching it float away. This visualization helps distract from anxious thoughts.


Integrating Breathing and Visualization

Combined Exercise: Calming Breath with Imagery

  • Sit comfortably, placing a hand on the chest and stomach. Inhale deeply, allowing the stomach to rise, focusing on abdominal expansion, and practicing deep abdominal breathing. As you inhale, visualize a safe and tranquil place. When panic arises, begin the deep breathing, and then imagine you are in your safe space. Focus on the sensory details—sounds, smells, and textures—to help ground yourself.


Getting Professional Help

You should not have to manage your panic attacks on your own. It can be more helpful and effective if you get help from a professional therapist. A therapist can help you identify and correct any distorted thinking patterns that may be contributing to your panic and anxiety. Your thoughts are likely contributing to your fears, and sometimes correcting them can help you ward off an attack even before it starts.


For this to be effective, you must dedicate a specific time each day to regularly practicing these calming exercises. Incorporating these breathing and visualization exercises into your routine will allow you to master calming your body and mind, and this will result in a reduction or elimination of panic attacks over time. Remember, patience and practice are key to achieving long-term peace and resilience against future episodes.