The first time I had a panic attack, I was at home. The feeling of a crushing closeness, an unbearable dread ramping up toward terror, and the flood of adrenaline through my body were entirely new to me.
Though I am a psychologist, and had seen and treated many people with panic attacks, I’d never had one. What did I do?
The first thing I did was flee—I removed myself from the situation and went out into the street, there wasn’t many people about, as it was late at night.
Controlled breathing helped me gain a great deal of control over my panic response.
See, a panic attack is always a response, although we may never be able to isolate exactly to what we were responding.
In other cases, it’s clear. Sometimes the idea of doing something terribly dreaded (public speaking for example) can invoke a panic attack.
Panic attacks are the result of a feedback loop between our perceptions (which may not be based in reality), and our body’s responses (which are dependent on our perceptions, no matter how “right” or “wrong” our perceptions are).
If we perceive we’re in danger, our bodies respond with activation of our fight or flight response system.
Adrenaline and a huge number of other chemicals get dumped into our blood stream, and we’re ready to fight for our lives, or take to our heals, for no life or death situation.
Often times, mindful attention to our circumstances, with controlled breathing and a simple exercise or two, abort a panic attack.
When I feel a panic attack coming on, and for me, that’s almost always signaled by shortness of breath or a feeling of claustrophobia, I begin very simple breathing exercises.
I become focused in the here and now, and I focus on my breathing.
Slow, regulated breaths focus us on our core, where we’re safe and strong.
Another exercise I use is to fold my hands, make sure my legs are uncrossed, and also drop my shoulders if I’ve raised them.
Those are all defensive postures, and they all tend to inhibit relaxation of the chest and ribs. It’s very nearly impossible to relax or return to a calm state with a restricted chest and crowded ribs.
When my hands are folded, I concentrate on the sensations coming from them.
How does the hand underneath feel—what are the sensations coming to me from that hand? Then I switch to the hand lying on top.
I flex my fingers and very slowly move each hand. All the time my breathing continues, slowly, controlled and easy—although deep.
While all these actions may seem like they’d call attention to you, believe me—they don’t.
A person following the steps above is in everyday circumstances indistinguishable from anyone else, and far less noticeable than a person enduring a panic attack!