As I stood in the shower, water pouring down my face, I began to panic. I felt my throat tighten, my fists clench, and my heart race. The thoughts swirling around in my head exploded, and I couldn’t pull them back in.
The panic grew, and my chest quickly rose and fell. Why am I freaking out? What’s going on? By now, the panic attack took over my entire body, and I felt as if I could never escape. My mind was tricking me into believing I didn’t have control, and I fell for it.
Breathe. Just breathe. I said those three words in my head over and over, waiting for them to take effect. I attempted to clear my mind of everything, but the thoughts kept swirling in. Why don’t I have control? Eventually, my mind escaped from the viscous cycle of panic, and I felt my breaths become deeper and slower.
If you have ever had a panic attack, you know the scenario above all to well. For those of you who haven’t, WebMD offers a (surprisingly) accurate statement that sums up what it is like to experience one:
Panic attacks involve sudden feelings of terror that strike without warning. These episodes can occur at any time, even during sleep. People experiencing a panic attack may believe they are having a heart attack or they are dying or going crazy. The fear and terror that a person experiences during a panic attack are not in proportion to the true situation and may be unrelated to what is happening around them.
What really got me in this definition was the sentence, “The fear and terror that a person experiences during a panic attack are not in proportion to the true situation and may be unrelated to what is happening around them.” Yup, that’s it.
Panic attacks are not what you experience when something scary or intense is happening. Panic attacks are what happens when your brain suddenly goes into overdrive, and you become absolutely crippled with fear and anxiety for no reason. No one scared you. Nothing out of the ordinary happened. You just begin to panic. The panic you’re experiencing then actually scares you, which causes you to panic even more, and everything spirals downward from there. It feels like you are being sucked into a black hole, with no escape in sight.
There is an escape, and it comes in two simple words: just breathe. There is no amount of rationale that will help you in this moment. You will not be able to figure out why you are panicking, so don’t even try. The only solution is to get out while you can. Think of it as doing the “Stop, Drop, and Roll” technique when you’re on fire.
If your shirt is on fire, the last thing you’re going to do is sit there and say, “Hm, how did this happen. Let’s figure out how my shirt got lit on fire, then go from there.” The first thing you are going to do is put that fire out as fast as you can, so you stop, drop, and roll. After safely putting out the fire, then you can determine how this happened, and figure out how to prevent it from happening again.
Breathing is the “stop, drop, and roll” of panic attacks, and it’s the only way to extinguish the panic. Not to mention, it’s a lot easier then throwing yourself on the floor and rolling around. Here’s what you do:
- Stand up straight, and look at the ceiling (or sky or whatever is above you)
- Take a deep, long breath in through your nose (usually I try to count to 5)
- Open your mouth and release the air you just breathed in (again, 5 seconds does the trick)
- Repeat until you feel the panic subsiding (usually I just feel how fast my heart is beating, the slower the better)
- Carry on with your beautiful life
Having a panic attack doesn’t mean that you are crazy or that something is wrong with you. It simply is your body telling you to slow down. It’s overwhelmed, and it needs a break. Do it a favor and relax, maybe even read a book. (I suggest anything by Mitch Albom.) However, if this is becoming a regular thing for you, and all the relaxation in the world is not fixing it, then I suggest speaking to your doctor. There’s no shame in reaching out for help when you need it.