How to Manage Panic Attacks
Marti Wibbels, MS, LMHC
Last week, Moody Radio South Florida interviewed me about this concern. The topic is worth repeating, because people throughout the world are struggling with increasing anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, along with other emotional health concerns, thrusting the world into what’s now being referred to as a mental health pandemic. We can do something about our mental health. Let’s start by learning how to limit—and ultimately stop—panic attacks.
Panic attacks, experienced by both children and adults, frequently push people to seek help. But what is really happening? The DSM-5 describes a panic attack as “an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes [the abrupt surge can occur from a calm state or an anxious state]” and lists numerous physical and psychological symptoms that can appear during panic attacks, including:
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- Feelings of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
- Chills or heat sensations
- Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
- Derealization (feelings of unreality)
- Depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of dying
With the onset of a panic attack, many people rush to the ER, thinking it’s a heart attack or another serious medical condition. [If you have symptoms of a serious health concern, please see a physician ASAP!] Panic attacks can instigate feeling helpless, traumatized, or anxious. They can occur during a time of international stress (like a global pandemic) or amidst interpersonal problems. Or they can “hit out of the blue” when it seems like nothing is wrong. The main thing to know is that an actual panic attack will last for only minutes if you’ll begin to manage it as soon as it begins.
How to move beyond a panic attack:
- Tell yourself “It’s only a panic attack; my body could have released adrenaline because of a perceived I can make healthy choices to move away from this stress reaction and trust God with all my being.”
- Continue speaking calmly to yourself: “My body could be reacting to activity in my ‘hot’ sympathetic nervous system (SNS). I can move back to my ‘cool’ parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) by choosing to relax. I am not in danger; it just feels like I am.”
- Replace distorted thoughts (especially Catastrophizing). Tell yourself the Truth, such as God is my refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1). See chapter two of Core Healing from Trauma.
- Look at your watch or a clock and remind yourself, “This will only last a few minutes.”
- If you’re chest breathing, switch to diaphragmatic breathing: breathe deeply, inflating your lungs as you inhale through your nose and emptying your lungs as you exhale through your mouth. I=Inflate; E=Empty.
- Start a program of regular exercise, checking with your physician for ideas.
- Limit your intake of sugar, caffeine, and other stimulants.
- “Ground” yourself in the present. Learn grounding exercises so you’re ready to use them when needed.
Don’t be pulled in different directions or worried about a thing. Be saturated in prayer throughout each day, offering your faith-filled requests before God with overflowing gratitude. Philippians 4:6, TPT