Five Ways to Survive a Panic Attack
I had my first panic attack in 2008. I remember thinking I was going to die right then and there. But I didn’t die. Instead, I ended up at urgent care where an over-worked PA shoved a prescription for Xanax in my face and sent me on my way. I relied solely on medication to control my anxiety for a little under two years. The final straw for me was that I got tired of feeling like a drug addict each time I needed a refill of my prescription. So, finding a way to control my anxiety became my life’s goal. Through behavioral modifications like diet, exercise, and holistic remedies, I slowly worked my way out of anxiety-land.
A significant change in mindset was the last hurdle I needed to clear and I quit referring to myself as an ‘anxious person.’ What you believe, you become (at least for people like me). So, I stopped feeding that dark corner of my mind with any rhetoric that made my anxiety more powerful. Instead, I would prepare myself with positive self-talk whenever I had the chance.
Over the years it was also essential to identify my triggers, which happen to be the sudden onset of stress and overstimulation. One of the primary symptoms for me, when I’m experiencing the onset of an attack, is that the world looks shockingly vivid. Like someone boosted color and sharpened lines to an uncomfortable degree. In those moments, I try to see it as the universe attempting to show its beauty to me. I breathe deeply, accept what I’m feeling, and wait for it to pass while trying not to lose my shit.
With years of experience in panic-attack hysteria, I’ve created a pretty successful action plan I turn to should any anxiety arise. I like to practice what some call “grounding.” It is a five-step plan that aims to arouse your five senses to bring you out of your head and back into your body. Because as anyone who has ever suffered a panic attack can tell you, your brain hijacks your thoughts and fills your head with every worst-case scenario imaginable.
It is important to try and implement these strategies before you have a full-blown attack, which is why you should know your triggers, but these five steps have become essential for me, even on-the-spot. With that being said, here is my grounding plan:
1. Watch something relaxing
Watching a river flow, birds soar, or your cat perched on a sunny windowsill can all help you feel calmer. Focusing your attention on something relaxing can quickly quell those rising feelings of anxiety because it can help slow your breathing and heart rate. I enjoy watching Bob Ross paint “happy little bushes” when I’m feeling anxious.
2. Soothe your olfactory system
OK, the olfactory system is just a fancy way to say your sense of smell. My go-to remedy when I’m feeling anxious is lavender oil. I keep little bottles of it all over the house, in my purse, in my car, and in my travel bag. I put a few drops on my wrists or my neck and take long, deep whiffs. If you don’t want to wear oil, you can always use a room diffuser or soak in a hot bath. Either way, lavender has been shown in clinical trials to contain restorative properties that can relax the nervous system. I swear by it.
3. Touch something reassuring
Stimulating your sense of touch in a comforting way can help you feel safe, which is one of the main reasons we crave the touch of others when we are upset. Hugging a loved person or pet, for example, can release oxytocin, a hormone that can help you feel more relaxed. So, if you are experiencing anxiety, finding a way to make physical contact with someone or something can help you fight off that panic attack.
4. Listen to something serene
As I mentioned above, one of my triggers is overstimulation, particularly when it comes to noise. If I am in a crowded restaurant, for example, the blending of people talking, dishes clanging, and chairs scraping against a tile floor can make me feel claustrophobic, which will then make me panic. Removing yourself from noisy situations and replacing them with softer, soothing sounds can make a huge difference. Just stepping outside, going to the bathroom and listening to water run into the sink, or listening to a faux thunderstorm via an app on your phone can work wonders – Bob Ross also has a soothing voice, just saying.
5. Drink something soothing
Make yourself a cup of hot tea and let it help you chill out. Herbs like lavender, chamomile, peppermint, rose, or lemon balm is classicly soothing options. Plus, for me, the act of drinking something warm in and of itself is calming. I am also a huge fan of drinking electrolytes to help with anxiety. A natural electrolyte drink, like switchel, is rich in essential minerals like magnesium and can be incredibly effective against anxiety over the long-term.
I know this may sound like a lot, but I promise you, by incorporating a grounding practice into your panic attack action plan, you will feel far more in control of what’s happening to you. As always, the most important thing to remember during a panic attack is that you are not in danger. You are not dying or having a heart attack. You are not going to faint. You are still breathing. You will not pee your pants. It will pass. You will survive. Just remember to take long, slow, deep belly breaths while you work on grounding yourself and repeat after me: in with the good, out with the bad.
You got this.