Sanctuary for the Abused
Monday, February 05, 2007
How to Survive a Panic Attack
Part 1: What Is a Panic Attack?
No matter what kind of abuse you have endured, panic attacks may follow. Learning to control them can have a positive effect on almost every part of your emotional and physical recovery.
A panic attack is defined as a sudden onset of intense fear and terror along with symptoms of dizziness, trembling, heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, sweating, clamminess, chest pain, and losing the sense of reality. You can survive this condition with some knowledge about breathing, relaxation, and learning to translate external cues. The first panic attack usually comes out of nowhere, but there probably were some external cues that triggered it. The problem with these attacks is that once you have had one, the fear of another may precipitate another attack.
Many people who have panic attacks think that they are going crazy, having a heart attack, or are dying. Once you've been seen by a doctor and had a heart attack ruled out, there are things you can do to take control of your life once again.
Let me state again, if this is the first time you have experienced symptoms of a panic attack, get diagnosed by a physician. You MUST make sure that you are having a panic attack, not a heart attack or other physical problem. Your doctor may help by prescribing medications or professional counseling so the attacks don't develop into panic disorder. This information is not intended to replace medical advice and attention, but as another tool to help you recover. Pay attention to what your doctor says, go to follow-up visits if necessary, and take any advice to go into therapy very seriously.
Deep breathing and relaxation techniques are good ways to calm down during a panic attack. We'll discuss those in future articles. First let's learn about focusing on and translating external cues. By concentrating on an object outside your body, you bring yourself back to the present and interrupt chaotic thoughts.
This is a learned skill that takes practice. But with a little bit of time and effort, you can calm yourself and stop a panic attack. As you get better at this technique, you will not need to fear panic attcks any longer.
Practice this technique before you have another panic attack.
Find an object within your reach. It can be anything from a quilt on your bed to your cat sitting in the sunshine to a picture hanging on the wall.
Take hold of the object and look at it closely.
Now describe the object, out loud, in tiny detail, to an imaginary person who can't see it.
Since your imaginary audience can't see the object you're describing, you can't just say, "It's mostly blue." You have to say, "It's a square with a deep blue stripe across the top that covers about one-tenth of the square. The blue is a dark, rich, thick color that feels like a really hot summer day. Tiny white and yellow flowers are scattered evenly across the blue fabric.
The paler blue pieces of fabric have a coarse texture and a faint checked pattern."
Notice the detail in the description. You have to describe proportion, color, contrast, pattern, and texture. These tasks require concentration; you have to engage several different parts of your mind to be able to observe, measure, translate, compare and explain. Essentially, you are converting a visual image (the quilt) to an audio image (describing it in words to someone who can't see). It's very difficult to do these things and have a panic attack at the same time! By pulling many parts of your mind into the task, you regain control. Keep describing the object until you feel that you are firmly back in control and the panic is thoroughly banished.
Think about which of your five senses is most acute. If visual imaging is not your strong point, practice concentrating on any of your five senses and converting it to another sense through words.
Have you ever tried to describe an aroma to someone with no sense of smell? A smell is very complex and subtle. Translating a smell into words is difficult. You can describe textures ("The strong spices in the gravy make it a rough smell, like coarse sandpaper"), colors ("The gravy is thick and rich, almost a deep brown"), even sounds ("The gravy's smell is deep, round and soft, like a french horn in an orchestra.").
Using this technique takes practice. You'll need to call upon all your strength the first few times you translate external cues. It may help to have someone coach you through the description, prompting you with questions. ("OK, the gravy smells brown. What else?" Or: "The gravy is bubbling in the pan. What do the popping bubbles sound like?")
Sometimes you don't have the luxury of having a friend nearby to coach you. If you can't muster the strength to concentrate on an object, don't give up and decide that this trick won't work for you. The longer the panic attack lasts, the more unpleasant it becomes. Try the trick again. If you can't do it, practice some deep breathing techniques and try it again in a minute or so.
As you get better with time and practice, you will notice an unexpected bonus. Your ability to control your panic attacks will give you a boost in confidence. The panic attacks were a major force in your life. But now you have them under control and your life has improved. You can conquer other problems too.