To a degree, everyone experiences anxiety. There’s pre-test anxiety, job interview anxiety, anxiety over household repairs or a family illness — all the “typical” things people are bound to get anxious about.
But for anyone who has experienced the intense anxiety of a panic attack, or ongoing general anxiety (GAD), it’s obvious how different these are from the typical “worry.” In fact, the two don’t even seem to be on the same planet, much less the same page.
We’ve been told to “just relax”, to “put things in perspective” and to “just think positive.” But that’s not what anxiety, particularly neurological/chemical anxiety, responds to.
Generalized anxiety and panic attacks may present without any warning and with or without a root cause that can clearly be seen. They can also happen after the crisis is over — or with no crisis at all. If you’ve ever suffered a panic attack, you know exactly what I mean when I say this disorder is not the typical cycle of worry. So the standard platitudes just won’t work.
What’s the reality about panic attacks and general anxiety? Do you need to fear them? Is there anything you can do about them?
1. Realize That You’re Not Going to Die
I’m not being cute here. As sufferers, we really do feel as if they’re going to die. Many, many anxiety sufferers have had the experience of going to the emergency room with what they thought must be a heart attack or a stroke – racing, pounding heart; trembling; an inability to put thoughts together; numb hands and feet and a deep, certain feeling that something terrible, really terrible, is about to happen.
Here’s the reality. As much as you may feel like it, you’re not going to die from a panic attack. Panic attacks from a physical standpoint are generally non-harmful, believe it or not.
If you’re having a panic attack or general anxiety, remember: the feelings themselves will not kill you. You can experience all of them (and I know just how unpleasant this is) and come out on the other side physically fine. This is important to keep in mind.
2. Do Breathing Exercises – Right Away
The shallow breathing that inevitably follows the onset of panic is normal. It’s your body driving oxygen into your body more rapidly for what it assumes will either be a fight, or a flight to safety. There is nothing wrong with you for breathing shallowly and quickly when you feel panic.
But since you don’t actually need the response here and now, you can signal your body that it’s okay to breathe more normally again. You do this by taking slow, complete but not overly deep breaths. Take a second or two between each breath.
You are signaling your body that there’s actually nothing to fight or run from, and at the same time you’re keeping other symptoms (such as numbness and tingling) from progressing. This can help further calm you, as fear is the driving factor here — not something physically dangerous.
3. Realize That You Don’t Need to Run Away
Your automatic reaction, and from a biological standpoint this is actually a pretty reasonable one, is to get away — fast. Your body is in “fight or flight” mode. There’s nothing to physically fight, so you just want to run away.
And that does seem to help. As you run away from the store, the classroom, the conference, slowly your heart begins to regain a normal rhythm. Your feeling of doom calms down. You being to regain feeling in your hands.
Your mind is telling you, “See? Running away worked.”
Except that it didn’t. The association of running away plus feeling better is what worked. In other words, by running away, you believed you would start to feel better. That belief is what made you feel better.
Actually running away didn’t do a thing. Which brings us to the next point.
4. A Panic Attack HAS TO Stop Some Time
You ran away, believing doing so would stop your panic attack. And gradually, it did stop.
But what you need to realize is that it would have stopped anyway. No panic attack lasts forever. Period.
A panic attack will stop whether you run, stay put, hop on one leg reciting Shakespearian couplets… it doesn’t matter, the attack must and will stop. Your body just doesn’t contain the chemicals it would require to sustain a panic attack indefinitely. Nobody’s body does. And that’s it.
5. Know That You Won’t Go Crazy or Faint
A huge part of panic involves the fear of “doing something crazy” in front of other people. You fear you’ll literally lose your mind right there and show yourself as a “total nutjob” in front of strangers or in front of people who know and love you and count on you to “stay sane.”
A panic attack will not cause you to literally lose your mind. It just won’t. That doesn’t happen. You feel a bit “crazy” and shattered while you’re having one, but you are not going to go running through the streets stark naked jabbering in tongues or something.
People just don’t literally go crazy from panic attacks. It’s never been documented. If you need mental help, that’s fine. Get it. But you won’t start out sane one day, then literally go crazy because of a panic attack.
Another fear many panic attack sufferers have is of fainting. Rarely, VERY rarely, does a panic attack sufferer faint, unless there was something else going on (i.e., an illness, dehydration, etc.). And when we say very, we mean it.
But what if you did faint? So what? People would gather around you to help. They’d care. They wouldn’t think you were bizarre for fainting. People do faint. They’d do just what you’d do if you saw someone faint. They’d go over, try to help, make sure you were taken care of, and help you on your way again.
You’d stand up. You’d thank your helpers and you’d be on your way. However, it’s so unlikely this would actually happen that it’s only as a caveat that we really put this in. It is so common a fear for anxiety sufferers that it needed to be talked about. Now you know.
6. Drop the Shame
“What if I look crazy because I’m shaking?” “What if people see that I’m flushing/see that I’m going pale?” “What if people can tell something is wrong?”
What if? Most people are more wrapped up in themselves than in other people. You’re allowed to be imperfect at times. You’re allowed to look a little “off” at times. You’re allowed to go through what you need to go through. There is NO shame in dealing with panic. You’d be surprised to learn how many people around you deal with the same thing. They’re hiding it just like you.
Put away the shame. There’s no need for it and no reason for it. Nobody’s perfect. Do you expect yourself to be? Then drop that too.
You Are Not Alone
You are nowhere near as alone as you may think. You probably do a good job of hiding your symptoms. So do many panic and anxiety sufferers. It’s a sad truth that we truly feel we’re “the only ones” — until we start doing our homework and find out just how common this is.
Don’t hide it any more. You’ll be surprised how really dealing with it head-on rather than running in fear and shame can paradoxically help bring an end to your panic.