If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, you know you would do anything to make it stop. Two days ago I had my first one in seven years, and it was awful. They can be confusing – you may not know what caused it, or have a hunch but not be totally sure. You may only experience physical symptoms – shortness of breath, tight chest, dizziness – with zero psychological effects. Or vice versa. But if you’ve ever had that unexplained assurance that you’re going to die, with absolutely no proof to your claims, you’ve probably experienced a panic attack.
Six weeks ago, I relocated with my husband and cat to Albuquerque, New Mexico. A few days after arriving, while looking for our new home online, I found out that we’re now inhabiting one of the crime capitals of the country. So… settling in the past couple of weeks hasn’t been easy. Learning to work from home together with my husband has been a new experience, and getting space to myself can be hard. The other night I lost my phone at Target for an hour, until a good Samaritan turned it in. Then I cleaned out the garage and inhaled a lot of potentially cancerous dust. Then my cat caught an eye infection which we thought could potentially lead to him needing it removed. And to top it all off, a manhunt for a murderer shut down my neighborhood, and we couldn’t leave the house for a day while choppers circled overhead and police sirens made the never-ceasing rounds.
Then, a few nights ago, I woke up at 1:30am with intense stomach cramps. The vulnerability of the pain, the time of night and the anxious worries about my new home swirling in my head manifested into a full-blown panic attack. I stood up. Something’s wrong, I said to my husband who was just coming to bed. My blood was pulsing in my ears. I’m going to die. The adrenaline was coursing through my veins. I hadn’t experienced anything like this since… the panic attack I had 7 years ago after a car accident. I was able to get through the attack pretty smoothly, but the next day was quite drained. May these experiences serve as a reminder for self-care, nourishment and grace.
Here are 7 steps to help you find relief during and after a panic attack:
- Acknowledge that it’s (only) a panic attack. Your brain and your body are trying to protect you. This is a physical episode blended with a psychological one. You are NOT dying. You are NOT imagining things. Both of these things are true at the same time.
- Assume the position. For me, a couple of nights ago, it was child’s pose. If you don’t know what shape that is, here are some versions you can try. Putting your forehead to the ground and your belly to your thighs activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which puts your body in a state of relaxation. If you have pillows and blankets handy, support your pose. Turn the pillow (or better yet – bolster or futon cushion) parallel to your torso, and insert it under your chest and head, turning your head to one side. Use a stack of pillows if one isn’t enough to bring your head parallel to the floor. Or, if yoga’s not your thing, curl into the fetal position. Or just lie down in your preferred sleeping posture.
- Breathe deeply. If you can, try these 3 breathing exercises: bellows, 4-7-8 and counting practice. Imagine the oxygen flowing into your lungs, your blood stream, and being carried to your brain, your heart, all of your organs. Know that you are alive and well! I googled “breathing exercises” during a stressful moment and got this fun illustrated one from google (press play on the little video at the top of the results). Focusing on the breath is my go-to anxiety reducer, I engage it regularly while trying to fall asleep.
- Find a mantra in the moment that works for you. For me, it was simply, “I’m okay. I’m having a panic attack.” I told my husband this repeatedly. He looked me in the eyes and repeated it back to me. You can say, “This is really hard right now. I’m sorry I’m going through this.” Sometimes befriending ourselves in difficult moments is the best way to help us relax. After all, we’re the only ones who know 100% what we are experiencing.
- Tell someone who loves you. Whether it’s waking your roommate up, reaching out to a distant friend, or texting your mom, just letting someone know what’s going on can be helpful. I was beyond lucky to have my husband in bed next to me to witness my incident and tell me everything was going to be okay. He even brought me some lavender essential oil and rubbed my back until I fell asleep. Even if you don’t feel like telling someone during the panic attack, consider it the next day. It is incredibly healing to feel surrounded by a community after experiencing trauma. Your panic attack is a traumatic incident. Acknowledge its weight and reach out for support.
- Drink plenty of water. Stir in some electrolytes if you have them, like E-mergency. The day after a panic attack, you may experience what feels like a hangover. This is because the adrenaline surge from the panic attack has spent your physical energy. Be proactive, if you can, and hydrate! Also…
- Rest and recover. If your panic attack happened during the middle of the night, allow yourself to sleep in the following morning. Take a melatonin if you can’t fall back to sleep. If it’s during the day, try to carve out some time for a nap, or at least get in your jammies and allow yourself to binge your guilty pleasure Netflix originals. Work can wait. And if it can’t, find ways to advocate for yourself until you get the break you desperately need. Panic attacks are exhausting, and these are the moments when all the self-care practice can add up to some tangible results if we put them into action.
And finally, if you’re experiencing regular panic attacks or other symptoms of anxiety, consider booking an appointment with a therapist or counselor. Our culture places way too much stigma on mental illness, but suffering from this type of sickness should be treated just like you’d treat any other physical sickness. If you’re confused about what treatments are available to you, reach out for help. Remember, you are not in this alone. Meditation can be a great life-line during times of stress and anxiety as well. Consider making it a part of your daily routine, and check out the guided meditations I’ve recorded here.