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Strategies for Coping With Panic Attacks

Have you been in class and started to notice your heart rate beating faster? Your palms start to get sweaty and you begin feeling dizzy. You’re grasping for air and it feels like you can’t move or breath. You feel like you’re going to pass out and try to figure out what’s going on. You might think you’re having a heart attack and call 911.

Panic attacks are quite common. Did you know that 1 million Canadians experience panic attacks each year? Thus, if you can relate, you’re definitely not alone! Ever wonder why our bodies are reacting in such a way? Let’s break it down.

As human beings we all experience different degrees of stress at times, however we have a limit on the amount of stress each of us can handle. In psychology, we often use the term “somatization” to refer to the body-mind connection. Metaphorically, we can think of it like a kettle. When we think about stress we can think of it as though it is water we are pouring into the kettle.  This could be any form of stress including psychological stress (repressed emotions/thoughts), stress from transitions/moving, stress from the demands of our work, relationship stress, responsibilities of being a parent etc. Some of us might have smaller kettle, middle size kettles or larger kettles. These kettles represent something we call our “distress tolerance”. Thus, some of us can handle more stress than other (having larger kettle), however again we all have our limits. When our kettles are filled with water, it begins to pore over, leading our bodies to send the message that we can’t handle anymore stress. This can take the form of a panic attack. Alternative ways our bodies can send this message if through the development of somatic symptoms (i.e. getting headaches, stomach aches, pain in our body), or perhaps we might snap more easily at our friend or partner.

An example to illustrate the body-mind connection and how it functions would be the following: let’s say you’re at work and have a headache. We’re working on a project and all of sudden your boss comes over and says, “by the way that project is due tomorrow morning”. Typically, what’s going to happen is that pre-existing headache will amplify. Essentially, we just poured a bunch of water into the kettle and now that pre-existing somatic symptom (our headache) will enlarge. Now let’s say we have a friend who’s our co-worker near by and he turns over and says “why would he ask you to do that, that’s just not feasible to get that done so fast; you must be so stressed and anxious”. Essentially, we have a friend providing us emotional support and giving us validation on our experience. We can turn to this co-worker and externalize what we’re feeling, perhaps restating how anxious and stress we are. Typically what will happen is that headache that amplified will mitigate after speaking with our co-worker.

This example illustrates the function of our body-mind connection. Stress can amplify pre-existing symptoms or create symptoms all together including the development of a panic attack.

In order to pour out some of the water from the kettle when it is getting full, here are some practical strategies to help mitigate stress:

1)   Call a Friend or Family Member: By talking with a family member or friend we can externalize how we’re feeling and get emotional support. Referring to the example above, this can be a great way to pour out some water after feeling validated.

2)    Journal: We can write down what we’re feeling as another way to externalize our emotions.

3)   Name Our Emotions Out Loud: We can say out loud what emotions we are feeling to ourselves as another way to externalize them.

4)   Do Self-Care Activities: We could go running or do a physical activity.

5)   Sensory-Motor Psychotherapy: If we go to the gym and take a medicine ball, we can picture within this ball all of our stress/anxiety or other emotions we might be feeling. Then we can throw the ball down as hard as we can as a way to externalize our feelings by releasing/throwing them away.

6)   Use a Stress Ball Similar to the example above, we can take a stress ball and picture all of our emotions inside of it and squeeze it as though we are mitigating our emotions.

7)   Art: We can draw, paint, sculpture or do any form of art to express our emotions and what we are feeling

8)   Music and Dance: We can also use music and dance as other forms of expression.

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