No one likes panic attacks.
I created this step-by-step guide to help you stop them – for good.
Today we’re going to look at a simple technique that has helped me, and many others, to get rid off anxiety and panic attacks.
Let’s do this!
This article is about shifting your perspective on your thoughts and emotions, and stop the vicious negative cycle of ‘being afraid of being afraid’ — in my experience this is essential for conquering the fear of panic attacks.
However, a panic disorder often goes hand in hand with things like chronic stress, poor sleep, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), elevated lactic acid and stress hormones. You can reduce your anxiety levels by eating a good diet, balancing your blood sugar levels, prioritizing sleep, taking basic anti-anxiety supplements such as magnesium, etc, etc.
- What is a Panic Attack?
- Ruling Out Any Potential Medical Causes
- Why Am I Getting Panic Attacks?
- Anxiety 101: The Stress Response
- What Triggers the Flight-and-Fight Response During a Panic Attack?
- What Is The Root Cause of Your Panic Attacks?
- 3 Steps To Stopping Your Panic Attacks Now And Forever
- A Quick Summary of How To Get Rid Of Your Panic Attacks
- A Couple Finishing Words
What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a sudden episode of overwhelming feelings of fear and anxiety.
Or it can also simply be described as:
“Hell on earth”.
Often it comes on unexpected, for instance when you’re just going about your day – grocery shopping, working out, or when you’re trying to relax at night.
It’s something that is hard to grasp the utter shittiness of without having experienced one.
The physical sensations are often really overwhelming which makes it pretty much impossible to “just calm down” (which is complete-garbage-not-very-helpful advice).
So What Are The Symptoms of a Panic Attack?
Here are a few telltale signs that you may be experiencing a panic attack:
- You might get very dizzy, and it might feel like you’re about to faint.
- You might feel like you are being smothered and that your airways are being restricted, making breathing very difficult.
- When the fear and anxiety reach a certain threshold you might feel like you’re physically sick, and it may seem like you’re experiencing a legitimate heart attack.
- You might start getting a sense of unreality and detachment, or a feeling that something very bad is going to happen, or a fear of dying.
- You might get heart palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, numbness and more.
In my particular case the sense of unreality and detachment would really make things a whole lot worse – it triggered of a cascade of worrying that I was going insane, and that my brain was now irreversibly damaged, and that my life would get ruined, and so on:
“What the hell is happening to me?
Is reality dissolving right now?
Am I actually going insane now?”
(Spoiler alert: my brain is doing just fine, once I actually knew how to tackle this problem.)
Another common sensation are feelings of being “out of control”.
Despite efforts on your part to stop the cascade of anxiety it just gets worse and worse and worse – in fact when you try to “stop the anxiety” it just expands even more – and it might feel like you’re spinning into some dark deep hole that you’ll never get out of.
If you’ve experienced a panic attack, you will probably relate to at least some of this.
Also, did I mention it sucks?
Ruling Out Any Potential Medical Causes
Panic disorder, recurring unexpected panic attacks for a longer period of time, is a serious mental health problem.
You should always talk to your doctor to rule out any underlying medical causes and determine an appropriate course of treatment for your specific case.
Case in point:
Here’s one case where hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland) was found to be the cause of severe anxiety and daily panic attacks, and treating it appropriately with anti-thyroid medication resolved all symptoms.
Now, if you’re are experiencing panic attacks hyperthyroidism is highly unlikely to be the actual cause of them, but it’s always a good idea to check these things with a health practitioner.
If there’s nothing “wrong” with you, then it’s likely that you will be told that you have had a panic attack and perhaps you’ll get prescribed an anti-anxiety medication.
Which brings us to…
Taking Medications for Panic Disorder Treatment – Good Idea?
Generally speaking, no.
Drugs such as SSRIs and benzodiazepines may provide some short-term relief, and can probably be quite useful in some extreme cases of panic disorder…
…but ultimately they are not going to address the actual root cause of your anxiety.
If you’ve been suffering from panic attacks for a long time and have been searching desperately for a solution, then you’ve probably already realized that a magic pill is not truly what is going to remedy your problem.
Why Am I Getting Panic Attacks?
You certainly didn’t ask for a panic attack.
Neither did I, but I got one (and many more) all the same.
So exactly why do you get a panic attack?
Well, most people experience some degree of anxiety from time to time; for example when you accidentally step on your cat, or go to work in the morning and forget to put on underwear.
However some people experience anxiety that is more persistent, more severe and sticks around for longer.
Basicall, you can think of panic attacks as anxiety on steroids.
If we were to put anxiety on a spectrum of annoying to life-ruining then something more trivial such as feelings of restlessness would be on one end of the spectrum…
…and waaay over on the other end we have full blown panic attacks, where it’s literally impossible to feel more anxious.
I know that while you are experiencing a panic attack it does feel like something is very wrong with your body and mind.
But really, there is nothing wrong with you at all and there’s no defective genes, brain damage or mystery sickness afflicting you.
The symptoms you’re experiencing, the mental anguish and all of that shitty suffering and pain, are simply the result of a metric shit ton of anxiety and elevated levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and estrogen.
Anxiety 101: The Stress Response
“Ok… WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME AND HOW DO I GET RID OFF IT?!”
Well, here’s the thing:
Your brain and body is just doing its job protecting you against threats.
Anxiety and fear is our natural reaction towards any perceived threat.
In order to understand why panic attacks occur, and how to actually go about treating them, we first need to go through the basics of how stress and anxiety works and why it arises in the first place.
Pretty scary, huh?
Okay, perhaps not…
However when your great-great-great-something-caveman-grandfather saw this lion 50.000 years ago he would have gotten very anxious, very fast.
And for good reason.
The way the body and brain responds to encountering a large predator, getting ready to either fight or flee, is quite similar to the symptoms you experience during a panic attack.
You may have heard of the stress response, or fight-or-flight response, before.
How Does The Fight-or-Flight Response Work?
The stress response is your body’s emergency system – involving rapid hormonal and physiological changes – designed to protect you against threats.
When the stress response is turned on, your body releases large amounts of stress hormones into the blood stream such as adrenaline and cortisol, which increases your heart rate and breathing, making you more alert…
…and you guessed right, anxious!
It produces a short-term boost in energy so you can either run away very fast, or defend yourself against predators.
This helps to explain why during a panic attack you often get both the sensation of wanting to run away and escape while simultaneously being completely frozen unable to move a limb.
Stress → Anxiety →Inflammation (A Vicious Circle)
In the image below you can see the long-term negative effects of anxiety and stress on our body.
It looks kind of complicated but here’s the basic gist of it:
Chronic stress and anxiety leads to an increase in pro-inflammatory signalling molecules such as TNF, IL-6, IL-1…
….and this inflammatory state leads to more adrenaline/fight-or-flight/anxious symptoms!
It becomes a vicious negative loop of chronic stress and anxiety → inflammation → more anxiety.
This may help explain why anti-inflammatory substances such as aspirin has been shown to have a positive effect on anxiety related disorders e.g depression. Aspirin is generally speaking a relatively harmless drug (unless you easily get gut irritation from NSAIDs) and I’ve found that taking only 100-200 mg produces a nice, calming effect.
What Triggers the Flight-and-Fight Response During a Panic Attack?
So you see, anxiety and stress is something that should at least in theory be useful to us.
We don’t have to deal with the lions and bears and dinosaurs any longer – yet we still have this in-built threat detection system that likely has been favoured by evolution as an advantageous trait.
That is, a worrier had a higher chance of not dying from threats before, and those genes were then passed on to the coming generation.
A fight-or-flight response is very useful when it works as intended:
- Threat detected.
- Body and brain gets primed for fight or flight.
- Threat is dealt with.
- Stress response shuts off.
- You go back to your normal relaxed state.
Well, the problem is that all kinds of things can trigger a flight-or-flight reaction…
…not just large, prehistoric animals trying to sneak up on you.
You can turn it on when there’s no actual need for it, and perceive something as an emergency when it’s really not.
Getting Anxiety From “Thought Threats”?
The source of most of your anxiety and suffering is from your own thinking.
Basically your own thoughts can trigger a stress response which is exactly identical to a stress response trigged by a “real threat” – e.g a gorilla wanting to wrestle with you.
Worrying about the future, regretting things you’ve done in the past, ruminating on negative thoughts; all of these can be interpreted by your brain as “perceived threats” and can make you anxious and fearful.
Fearful feelings and emotions can then feed anxious thoughts, e.g “why am I having anxiety, what is happening to me”, which in turn makes you feel even worse.
I find that these unpleasant fearful sensations tend to rise up from the stomach/heart area to the mind, kind of like a hot-air balloon.
And as you’ve probably experienced, once the stress response has been set in motion and you’re now feeling stressed out, it can be awfully hard to turn it off again.
Kind of like trying to put out an out-of-control fire with some toothpaste.
…Okay, bad analogy.
So let’s get to the bottom of this right now, so that you can get better ASAP.
What Is The Root Cause of Your Panic Attacks?
Stress and worry is what triggered your panic attacks in the first place…
…and another type of stress and worry is what’s keeping them alive.
Think back to your first panic attack.
You can probably vividly recall where you were, how truly awful it felt, and the stressful thing/event that triggered the panic attack.
Panic attacks can be triggered by just about anything, even ‘mundane’ things:
- for one person that could mean riding an elevator
- for someone else it could be being forced to talk in front of a group of people
- or worrying about having an illness
- or having anxieties around eating certain food
- and so on and so forth.
And sometimes you can not point to one specific thing that you can say for sure triggered your panic attacks in the first place.
For me it kind of developed from a prolonged, gradual build-up of fear – with anxious feelings and anxious thoughts in a vicious feedback loop – that had been bubbling for months or even years.
How You Become Afraid of Having Panic Attacks
The natural reaction to any threat is to flee and make it go away!
Well, the problem is that this approach doesn’t work with panic attacks.
In fact it tends to make things way worse.
Here’s what I mean:
The natural urge to anxiety (i.e pain) is to fight, flee or resist it.
The rational, thinking part of your brain can become puzzled by your irrational reaction to anxious feelings…
…and the pattern of anxiety, and internal resistance towards feelings of anxiety, can quickly spiral into full-blown panic attacks.
The specific thing that triggered your panic attacks in the first place may still be present, or it may be gone, but the fear and anxiousness tends to hang around either way.
And the worst kind of fear is the fear of panic attacks themselves.
The stressful event that initially triggered a panic attack is not the main problem, the main problem here is….
Being Afraid of Being Afraid
The intense feelings of fear and anxiety comes from apprehension about having a panic attack.
In other words = being afraid of being afraid.
After experiencing a panic attack it’s common (and perfectly understandable) to be afraid of the possibility of having another panic attack, and to avoid whatever your specific trigger is, e.g if your anxiety is centered around riding elevators then you might avoid elevators like the plague.
So the natural reaction is trying to resist or stop a panic attack when it’s coming on…
…but in doing so you’re only going to feed this apprehension about having a panic attack, and the anxiety will expand in proportion to your resistance to it!
Remember, we talked about the brain not being able to differentiate between real threats and imagined threats.
Here the perceived threat is having a panic attack, and in response to this “threat” the body and brain mounts a HUGE stress response with lots of the ‘fear hormones’ cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline.
Now with all of that conceptual stuff out the way, let’s break this cycle of fear with a very practical exercise!
3 Steps To Stopping Your Panic Attacks Now And Forever
Step 1: Realize That A Panic Attack Can’t Hurt You
It can feel like you are about to die when experiencing a panic attack – thus making the problem worse because now you’re worrying about dying and/or going insane.
So, let’s get one thing clear:
A panic attack is not dangerous and can’t hurt you. Ever.
Your body isn’t going to fall apart and you won’t lose your mind either!
We’ll get to this in just a bit, but you can literally “challenge” a panic attack to be the worst it can be… and still nothing bad is going to happen.
The symptoms you are experiencing are a result of your nervous system basically going haywire, and a TON of stress hormones, and while this is highly unpleasant it won’t kill you.
Step 2: Embracing Your Panic Attack Fully
If you fully commit 100% to doing this, then you can really say bye-bye to your panic attacks forever.
It really works.
It works better than anything I’ve ever tried, and it works consistently every time whenever I feel a panic attack brewing.
I’m by no means perfect and my anxiety still shoots up to really uncomfortable levels at times, but by doing this I can ALWAYS bring it back down to something that is much more manageable.
So, here’s what we’re going to try and do now.
Basically, when you feel a panic attack coming on, or you’re experiencing a panic attack, you have to:
Allow all of the fear and anxiety in your body to be as bad as it can be, and let go of ANY resistance you have towards these extremely uncomfortable feelings.
Let whatever feeling you have be as worse as it wants to be.
Let go of the desire to flee or escape from your feelings, and let go of the urge to try and “stop your panic attacks”.
Now I get it:
Of course you WANT to STOP these panic episodes, as we talked about that’s a completely natural self-preserving instinct. Back when I was having frequent panic attacks my only goal in life was to stop them!
But actively trying to halt or stop a panic attack from progressing is really only making matters worse.
It’s impossible to end a panic attack by trying to stop them – the key thing here you want to accomplish is to stop being afraid of the panic attacks themselves.
Having Courage And Facing Your Fears
The sensation of having a panic attack certainly feels real – I mean your whole body can be in extreme pain and anguish. No one can say that these feelings aren’t real.
However the “panic attack” itself essentially consists of a 100% self-created fear – your brain perceives a panic attack as a highly dangerous “real threat” because you’ve chosen to give it this importance.
When you gather the courage, and it does take courage, to challenge this fear and step right through it, you will experience one of the greatest feelings as you realize that there was NOTHING there to be afraid of.
It’s really quite profound when you finally decide to make this leap of courage and discover the actual cause of all of your suffering = apprehension about having panic attacks.
Step 3: Practicing Letting Go
Doing this is by no means easy.
It can be incredibly scary to take the first step of “letting go” and allow a panic attack do whatever it wants to do. And it can feel quite counterintuitive as this is going against your most basic survival instincts, i.e fleeing from threats/pain.
One helpful exercise is to actively try and make your anxiety even worse by thinking or saying out loud:
“I don’t give a shit anymore, I’ll let my anxiety and fear be as worse as it can get. Come on!”…
…while simultaneously DOING this by shifting all of your attention towards these feelings and facing them full on.
This can be an extremely hard thing for the rational human mind to accept.
But seriously, if you’ve already experienced a bad panic attack then it really can’t get any worse than that.
You might as well try this out and see what happens!
And spoiler alert…
…what will happen is that you realize that it’s not getting any worse, and in fact, you will start to feel a little less afraid.
When you take this kind of action to make your anxiety and fear worse, you’ll prove to yourself that it’s literally impossible to induce a panic attack in this fashion!
If you can do this to just a small degree, then you have already “won” over your panic disorder and it doesn’t have any power over you.
A Quick Summary of How To Get Rid Of Your Panic Attacks
Panic attacks feed off of fear.
When you cut off the fear supply, they don’t exist any longer.
And how exactly do you cut off the fear supply?
By doing what we’ve talked about previously.
You have to be present here and now, feel all of the anxious, fearful feelings in your body and allow them to be, and then ACTIVELY go right towards them and encourage them to be as bad as the can be.
This is not going to help you just by understanding it on a conceptual level.
“Aha, a panic attack is just apprehension about having a panic attack, I get it!”
Thinking about this – while not actively doing anything – will probably only feed the mind activity that is at the root cause of your anxiety.
You must actually DO it, believe it, and just sit with your panic attack without hiding, until it subsides away.
It’s really that simple.
A Couple Finishing Words
As I said in the beginning, anxiety disorders just plain suck.
Living with one can really cripple you and make life more or less unlivable.
I mean, who wants to walk around and be afraid all of the time?
Under these conditions it’s very easy to become a victim and feel sorry for yourself… but ultimately that’s not really going to help you get any better.
You need to start developing some courage so that you can tackle your anxiety and face it straight on. If you can apply some of the principles that I’ve outlined here in this article and start to feel a bit better, that is a fantastic first step and you should feel proud of yourself.
After that you want to push your boundaries and step out of your comfort zone, start doing the things that you previously were afraid of doing and never ever let your anxiety get in in the way of your life.
I hope that with this article you can do just that!
Learning how to manage stress and anxiety can be very useful, if you’re interested I suggest checking out this other article for ways to quiet your mind and be more at peace.