People often confuse high levels of anxiety with panic attacks. In truth, what we call “anxiety attacks” are simply times in which we feel overwhelmed, struggling to cope emotionally, and focus our thoughts. Panic attacks are best understood as the culmination of chronically high levels of anxiety over a period of time, coupled with intense physical symptoms.
A person who is experiencing a panic attack typically feels like they have a heart attack. They cannot breathe well. They feel that there is a massive weight on their chest, numbness in their limbs, and significant body pain.
Panic attacks cause a debilitating loss of perspective, and folks struggle to even begin to cope. It’s important to know that attacks only last 15 minutes or less. One of the very first strategies I teach those who experience panic attacks is to tell themselves, “I am going to feel a lot better in about ten minutes.” This provides us with a healthier outlook and a greater sense that we will soon regain control.
The only thing we should be focusing on during a panic attack is breathing as deeply and as slowly as we can. Anxiety makes us want to do things that increase our heart rate like pacing and gesticulating. It often leaves us thinking cyclically, speaking rapidly, and trying to explain things that we don’t have a clear sense of.
Self-control is best regained by focusing on our bodies and staying out of our thoughts. Instead of fighting to regain composure, we’d do best to respond to ourselves as we would a friend. When people we care about are afraid or overwhelmed, we reassure them and are especially kind. Those of us who live with chronic anxiety tend to be overly self-critical and impatient.
The more we practice treating ourselves as we do others, the less anxiety we experience. This, in turn, reduces the number of panic attacks and gradually improves our sense of self-control by increasing our sense of safety. Let’s move away from the pressure of bottling up emotions and toward the freedom of expressing them.