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I still remember my first panic attack. Like many people who experience them for the first time, I was convinced that I was dying and there was something horribly wrong with me. As I got older and learned how to calm a panic attack with a little more ease, the prospect of living with Generalised Anxiety Disorder wasn’t as grim.
In a recent pity party that I was holding myself, the DJ of my mind let the record scratch as I had the following stupid thought:
“I’m not getting ANY better at managing my anxiety”
-Renee, Pity Party 2019
What nonsense! I’ve been battling panic attacks and debilitating anxiety for years. And although I’m not cured, I’ve gotten a lot better at helping myself manage symptoms. In the interest of passing on knowledge, here’s what I’ve found works.
How I calm a panic attack? By “hacking” my breathing
Sometimes, in the midst of panic, it’s easy to forget that the body is rather proficient at protecting itself and figuring out what’s best.
For example, it’s highly unlikely that you WILL actually pass out, or be sick from a panic attack, or that your chest will burst open like Kane in Alien.
What’s far more likely is that your panic attack, like most, with last for a maximum of 30 or so minutes before easing in severity and then eventually disappearing.
One of the keys to helping fade panic into the background is breathing, with a technique I mentioned in the graphic above.
Taking a slow, measured breath for the count of 4, holding for 4 and breathing out for 7 (or as long as I can) is the first step in how I calm a panic attack.
Using the breath is one of the fastest ways to “hack” the body into a state of calm. This is via the parasympathetic nervous system.
ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) involves a combination of dbt-like skills eg: (mindfulness and defusion) to move through emotions rather than using traditional thoughts based therapy like CBT.
In an ACT approach to panic attacks, instead of trying to “logic” my way out of a panic attack, I will first ACCEPT that this is my reality, that I am experiencing a moment of panic.
Perhaps I’ll name the worry or anxiety out loud.
Along with immediate thought defusion activities, daily mindfulness practice has also been extremely helpful to me when I’ve remembered to engage with it.
Below is one of the best books I’ve read on Acceptance & Commitment Therapy and the mindfulness script and exercises are often used in group therapy sessions.
How I calm panic FAST? With TIPP skills
What is TIPP?
TIPP skills are a part of DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) a branch of CBT developed in the 1980’s to help treat patients with borderline personality disorder. The acronym stands for.
Make changes to your temperature (hot to cold, cold to hot) to bring your awareness back to the present
I- Intense Exercise.
A spurt of intense exercise to match your anxiety levels can be useful in regulating the breath.
P- Paced breathing.
As discussed above, paced breathing is a key way to “hack” your body into relaxing. The important part to remember about paced breathing is your exhalation should be longer than your inhalation.
P- Paired muscle relaxation.
Also called progressive muscle relaxation, this is one of the tips (or TIPPS) I do when I have more time on my hands, or if my panic happens at night before sleep. Here’s a favourite video of mine to listen to.
Before I go
I want to recommend a self-development and mental health blogger named Kim Banwell (fellow Australian) who runs a series called Unmasking The Stigma. She interviewed me once too!
If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that reading about thriving despite mental illness uplifting and inspiring, especially when you’re feeling down.
What’s helped you through a panic attack before? I’d love to know in the comments.