For the last few weeks, I have looked at anxiety, its effect on my life and how I have coped. As I mentioned before, some people deal with many anxiety disorders at once. Unfortunately, I am one of those unlucky people. While I have lived with social anxiety for as long as I can remember, panic attacks are something new.
Living with Panic Attack Disorder
Most persons might have heard the terms anxiety attack and panic attack (and may have used the terms in place of each other), but most medical sources differentiate the two. An anxiety attack is intense worrying over imminent major or minor events such as death, being late for an appointment or an uncertain outcome.
I know I have had several anxiety attacks especially when I operated my bakery about 7 years ago. I remember the moments when I would start hyperventilating because I felt I would not have enough time to finish a large order. I remember being so worried about the final presentation when preparing wedding cakes. I did not want to be known as the baker who spoiled the bride’s big day. I was familiar with those feelings of fear, but nothing could have prepared me for a panic attack or living with this disorder.
Panic attack disorder could be classified as repeated panic attacks that last for several minutes or longer. These episodes can send patients to the emergency room because some persons may think they are having a heart attack.
This happened to me about a year ago and it started while I was at work. I wasn’t even a full hour into my shift when I became overwhelmed by emotion. I had a sinking feeling and I remember being very dizzy. It felt like I was falling down a hole (that’s the best way I can describe the feeling). That’s when the shortness of breath and chest pain started. At the time I had no idea what was happening and I was very concerned because I thought it was a heart attack or a stroke. When I arrived in the emergency room the nurses connected me to several machines to track my heart. I spent hours admitted to the emergency so undergoing tests to make sure that I was not in any imminent danger. When I followed up with my cardiologist, he concluded that it was a panic attack since all the tests showed no heart problems.
Panic attacks affect 6 million adults or 2.7% of the U.S. population. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men. An estimated 4.7% of U.S. adults experience panic disorder at some time in their lives.
Coping with Panic Attacks
Since starting therapy I have learned of ways to manage panic attacks. I would like to share a few of the strategies I have learned which have helped me.
- Breathing. I know this may sound corny but breathing has helped to cut the effects of a panic attack. In some cases, it has even stopped an attack. In moments when I begin to feel anxious or like I may spiral into a panic attack, I practice deep breathing. If I can, I find a quiet space or play some music (something soothing) and I do a few minutes of deep breathing. I inhale through my nose (into my belly) for a count of 5 then I hold that breath for a count of 2. After, I exhale through my lips (as if I am cooling hot soup) for another count of 5. I would do this with my eyes closed until my heart beat calms.
- Investigating. My mind is always “on” and I am always over thinking about my actions and the actions of others. When my mind starts to spiral out of control I have an internal conversation with myself. During this conversation, I attempt to pinpoint the reason for the way I am feeling at that moment. Why am I anxious? Why am I afraid? Why am I nervous? Usually, I am able to find the root or trigger, and that’s when I begin to look at the worst case scenario. I compare that worst case scenario and the reality of what will most likely happen. My former therapist always encouraged me to look at situations from a factual point. She would ask me to take the emotion out of the situation and look at the situation using facts. This usually works well for those anxiety-filled late nights when sleep in hard to find.
- Grounding. I learned this method a few months ago from my current therapist. This focuses on my senses and connecting to what’s around me (getting me out of my head and thoughts). I find 5 things I can see, 4 things I can feel, 3 things I can hear, 2 things I can smell and 1 thing I can taste. This helps when it seems like I am losing control and falling down that hole.
If you suffer from panic attacks or any anxiety disorder reach out to your health care provider. Battling any anxiety disorder can be very lonely so having friends around me who at least try to understand this struggle has helped me.
National Institute of Mental health
Anxiety and Depression Association of America