The best way to deal with a panic attack (from my own experience) when already experiencing one is to just allow it to happen without making any effort to stop it. When I was going through my own anxiety and experiencing panic attacks on a daily basis, I would try so many things to put an end to them. Whether that would be the classic paper bag method (which, by the way, I found to be completely useless), telling myself that I didn’t need to panic, telling my family or friends that I was experiencing a panic attack, breathing techniques or telling myself that I shouldn’t be feeling this way (A huge mistake).
Stop trying to escape from the panic
All attempts at stopping and trying to escape from the panic only serves to keep it alive inside of us. There is a wise quote that goes something like this: “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.” This is exactly what many (if not most) panic attack sufferers do when experiencing a panic attack. We try our best to get ourselves out of it which makes perfect sense because our natural urge is to try and stop ourselves from feeling anything bad. However, telling ourselves that we shouldn’t be having a panic attack doesn’t change anything, it only adds more resistance and fear.
So, we can’t stop the waves of panic attacks, they’re completely out of our conscious control. What we can do, however, is learn to ride the waves of panic by surfing up and over them. How do we learn to surf? We do this by no longer fighting against the panic. By no longer trying to reason, argue, suppress or talk ourselves out of it. Let the waves of panic and anxiety wash over you, fully embrace it all. You won’t die or come to any harm. You will become more empowered.
You don’t have to visualise anything whilst going through this process, but right here, right now, just imagine this.
Imagine trying to close a door which won’t shut. There are loads of hands pushing on the other side with great force. This is what happens when we try and block out the panic. The force we use through suppression and resistance only intensifies the energy of the panic, making it even more unbearable. Now imagine that you stop trying to keep the door closed and you just allow it to open. This is what allows you to transmute the resistance into a feeling of ease. I’m not sure if this happens for everyone but I experienced feelings of warmth and tingly sensations when I stopped struggling to shut the door on anxiety and said yes to it. Basically, you become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable and before long you replace the feelings of resistance and heaviness with feelings of ease and lightness. This won’t mean you will stop feeling the sensations, it just means that you won’t intensify them through adding more resistance. It’s like a complete shift in energy. Resistance makes you feel heavy, dense and restricted. No wonder why we feel more anxious through the resistance approach. When we go the other way and no longer resist how we are feeling, we flow in the same direction with the panic which cuts off the resistive energy.
Let me quickly talk about the fear of fear. We respond with more fear to the panicky sensations and thoughts. As we know from our own experience, this can only create more panic. Why do we respond with more fear? Only for one reason. It’s very simple. We fear that the anxious sensations are somehow causing our bodies physical harm. This is why we respond with thoughts such as “What if my heart stops?”, “What if someone notices I’m having a panic attack?”, “What if this never goes away?” and so on.
While it feels as if panic attacks are causing us actual harm, they are not. Let me repeat that because it’s very important to understand. While it feels as if panic attacks are causing us actual harm, they are not. Remind yourself often: “I am safe. there is no real threat. Panic attacks are harmless.”
Whether you’re experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations, irrational thoughts, churning stomach etc. you need to understand that none of these symptoms of a panic attack are dangerous. Once you finally get this then you will defuse a lot of the fear you’ve been creating. The only way you can know this for sure is to allow yourself to fully feel the panic.
“Become the hunter, not the hunted” – Barry Mcdonagh
Another approach I was taught which shatters the illusion of fear is to deliberately bring the panic on. You make it worse by asking for more of it. When I first started to practice this response, I was very sceptical and uncertain because I had this fear that if I did in fact make the panic attack worse, then I would lose complete control over it. The truth is we have no control over panic and anxiety to begin with. At least we don’t in the intuitive sense. We actually gain back our power and control when we stop trying to control it. We only have control over how we respond to it. The very attempt to constantly control and manipulate the way we feel and the thoughts we think is what’s causing the problem. This, of course, sounds really illogical and that’s because it is. However, just because it seems silly, doesn’t mean it’s not effective. Paradoxically, this approach through practice and the passage of time, will end panic attacks. Remember, it’s our fear and resistance to the panic that amplifies it.
Imagine running away from anxiety and panic. You’re looking over your shoulder whilst running and in great fear, you see it running at you. This is what happens when we mentally run away from the anxiety and panic. I don’t know about you but whenever I approached a panic attack this way, it just grew stronger and seemed more scarier. Again, it’s completely normal and natural to respond with fear and resistance. Never beat yourself up for this because it’s a natural response. Now we have to act unnatural by changing our response to it.
What we can learn to do is train ourselves to end the fear we have towards the panic which is through allowing it to do it’s worst to us. Then instead of the panic running at us, we will be running towards it. This is how we shift from a state of fear into a state of full empowerment. What this approach does is it allows us to clearly see that no harm is coming to us. it’s just our fear of the panic attack which feeds it. The most empowering thing to realise is that when experiencing a panic attack, we are already going through the worst that can happen, Nothing is ever going to happen to us as a result of panic attack, the worst that can happen has already happened. It’s just a bunch of unpleasant sensations and thoughts which are completely harmless.
“Demanding more sends a strong signal from the rational part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) to the anxious part of your mind (otherwise known as the limbic system or the “emotional brain”) that there really is no danger or attack. It’s like a kill switch for fear. Your emotional brain gets the message and “click”- the panic alarm switches off and your nervous system starts to discharge and unwind” – Barry Mcdonagh, Author of DARE.
This ‘running towards it’ approach along with reassurance, acceptance, perseverance and time will allow you to free yourself from fearing the panic attacks and subsequently stop them in the correct way.