Experiencing a panic attack can be scary and disorienting. Knowing the signs, symptoms and how to cope are empowering tools to have in your mental health tool kit.Read on for a Q&A on Panic Attacks with Frame Therapist Maya Nehru.
Q: Can you define what a panic attack really looks like?
Maya: A panic attack is a state of nervous system arousal. It comes with a lot of anxiety and physical symptoms like feeling dizzy, tunnel vision, getting flushed, increased heart rates, sweating, shaking, all sorts of things that make you feel a bit out of control.
Sometimes people who experience a panic attack feel like they're going to die because their body is basically in “fight or flight”. Whether or not there is an actual threat around you, your body senses that there is a threat and it just goes into overdrive and you start to act like you're about to fight something.
Q: Is it possible to experience a panic attack and not have physical signs?
Maya: This is a good question. I think one of the most important factors about a panic attack being labeled a “panic attack” is the physical symptoms that come with the arousal. So I would say not really, but sometimes it can be hard to see the physical symptoms. For example, you see a person and they might be having a panic attack, but to you, they look normal. You can't see their increased heart rate. You can't see the sweating palms. So I think it really depends on that one.
Q: How is a panic attack different from normal nerves or stress?
Maya: All of us experience normal nerves and stress, things that day-to-day life just throws at us. A panic attack, however, is very severe in its intensity and it can last from two minutes to under an hour at a level of distress where your body is feeling like it's in “fight or flight” during that full time. So, it's that intensity and the severity that really qualifies a panic attack.
Q: What are some things that I can remember to do in the moment when I feel a panic attack coming on?
Maya: This is so important and I think one of the best tools that you can have, and it’s one of the simplest ones, is just remembering to breathe. Really make sure that you're inhaling through your nose, breathing out through your mouth and just feeling all of the oxygen move through your body.
Another technique that I like to use is engaging the five senses. Once you feel a panic attack coming on, what's really important is for you to try to stay grounded and present in the moment so that your anxiety and these physical symptoms don't take over.
Tap into your senses:
- Use your smell. What are you smelling in the moment? Are you smelling the perfume you're wearing? Maybe there's a food truck nearby and you're getting the delicious scents.
- What are you seeing around you? Are you in a classroom? Are there clocks, desks? Are you out and about? Can yousee trees and look up at the sky and see a bird?
- Touch is another great sense to engage. You can start to touch your arm, maybe put your fingers together and remind yourself where you're at in this moment, and the body you're in.
- There's also taste. So if you have gum or a mint you can pop it into your mouth and really focus on that.
These mindfulness tools really get you out of your head and back into the present moment, which is really important and very helpful in de-escalating the panic that you start to experience.
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