A Guide to Stopping Panic Attacks in Their Tracks
There’s a lot of ‘I’ and ‘me’ in this. My wife said those two words should be eliminated from the dictionary so nobody can talk about themselves. I truly don’t like to talk about myself so although this is about my experience with panic attacks, I’ve written this to show how you can either purge panic attacks completely or at least limit how frequently they occur. After suffering through this nightmare for a very long time, I've recently gotten past it. I thought that by sharing my experience, it may help you get past yours too, if you're in the throes of these damn awful things.
What I'll Discuss In This Article:
- What Panic Attacks Feel Like
- My Most Notable Experiences With Panic Attacks
- Other People's Descriptions of How They Feel
- An Explanation of Panic Attacks by Dr. Shear
- The Amygdala and the Role It Plays
- Treatment Options: What Worked and Didn't Work for Me
Panic Attack or Anxiety? What's the Difference?
Although the two are often confused, they are two completely different things. Panic attacks are sudden onsets of extreme fear, usually with no apparent trigger, while anxiety is fear or worry that is usually associated with a specific place or situation.
TL;DR: What Treatments Worked for Me
In case you don't read all the way to the end, this is a quick summary of the treatment options for panic attacks that worked and didn't work for me.
- Medication: Diazepam really helped me out, but the downside was that I had to keep taking it to control the panic attacks.
- Cannabidiol (CBD oil): This is purely based on my personal experience, but taking this seemed to calm me down.
- Deep Breathing: I'd pretend I was smoking a cigarette and use the same breathing technique I'd use if I had a real one.
- Identifying Things: I'd try to name everything around me in my head as quickly as I can.
- Treating My Panic Attacks as a Friend: It's a mental strategy. I think of my panic attacks as a friend who's a little distressed, and I tell myself that it's up to me to calm my friend down.
What Do Panic Attacks Feel Like?
The feeling of a panic attack is difficult to describe. Some people have asked, "Is it like the moment before you are about to make a public speech?" Well, no, it isn’t. That’s more the butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling. It's more like the moment before jumping out of an airplane. Although I’ve never done this, I can imagine the paralyzing fear I would experience on my first skydiving jump, very unsure if the parachute is going to open. Panic attacks are a little like that.
The big difference, though, is that if you are skydiving, you're made aware of the fear about to envelop you well in advance. With a panic attack, you don’t have any warning. They can happen anytime, anywhere, and believe me, they’re the most hideous experience ever.
What a Panic Attack Can Look Like (1:45 in)
The Beginning of My Panic Attacks
A Brief Encounter
About six years ago, I drove my wife to an out-of-town dermatologist. No big deal here. After waiting in the car for about 15 minutes, I walked down the road to grab a newspaper to read while I was waiting for her.
As I waited behind another customer to pay for the newspaper, I suddenly felt a blackness appear over me, like I was fainting, and I felt slightly weak at the knees. Luckily, that was it. The whole thing probably lasted about three seconds. I didn’t keel over, and although I felt a little clammy, I recovered in a minute or two as I walked back to the car.
I did think about this moment for awhile because fainting spells that happen out of the blue bring out all the worst thoughts about yourself. Was that a mild heart attack? Was it a brain tumour revealing itself? This all sounds ridiculous for such a minor event, I know, but I just wanted to know the cause. Eventually, I just put it down to a fairly hot day since I don’t suffer from any health problems.
My First Panic Attack
Then a few days later, I went into our local supermarket, which is a very large affair, and halfway through, all of a sudden, I felt trapped. My heart started beating out of my chest, and I dropped my basket of stuff and raced for the doors.
I jumped in my car with my heart pounding as though I had run a marathon, wondering what on earth that was all about but not realising that I had just experienced my first panic attack.
This Became a Pattern
I soon found that I would get nervous just driving around, and I loved driving. I guess my brain associated driving with going to the supermarket, a place it perceived to be dangerous, hence the driving nerves. A few weeks later, I told myself, "Enough is enough." So I learnt self-control techniques to prevent these attacks, but they never went away; I just felt incredibly uncomfortable in places I was trapped in, such as supermarkets, and even worse, traffic holdups. Any sign of a holdup ahead and I’d deviate quickly, opting to take a much longer way home rather than feel like I was trapped.
All of this carried on for years. Most days, I would wake with a pit in my stomach knowing that as soon as I left the house, I'd be on edge all day. Not nice at all. I then found that if I went out with my friends, I was only good for an hour at most before I’d make an excuse to go home again.
Fortunately, my wife is very understanding, so it hasn't greatly affected our relationship. However, for the first three years we were together, I never told her about any of this, and she never suspected anything.
The irony of all this is that before I began experiencing panic attacks, my stepson experienced them. He had to stay with my wife and I because his anxiety and panic interfered with his ability to work. I had no idea what he was going through at the time. I would constantly tell my wife to tell him "it's all in his head." It wasn't until I experienced it myself that I understood his struggle. Karma at its best, I guess.
Think You're the Only One With Panic Attacks?
No, you're not alone. According to MentalHealth.org, an estimated 2-3% of people across the US and Europe suffer from frequent panic attacks.
Other Descriptions of Panic Attacks
Having "Superhuman" Energy
Wondering if anybody had suffered what I had just suffered, I turned to the net, and I found lots of cases. One lady in the UK told a story of how her anxiety caused her to send another lady’s shopping trolley flying down the aisle so she could get through—with what she thought was just a gentle push.
The energy that comes with these attacks have been likened to cases of "superhuman" feats. For instance, a car has turned on its side with someone trapped inside, and a passerby, in horror, manages to right the car on their own, which would be impossible under any other circumstance.
This energy has also been described as an "out-of-body experience." This isn’t to be confused with people seeing themselves from a different location, but it’s an odd and unpleasant experience. What it is—well, in my experience anyway—is where you seem to see things from a point of view somewhere over the top of your body. Instead of seeing from two eyes as you normally do, you see from slightly above your head. Your vision also seems to narrow so that it's like you're looking into a tunnel ahead.
Fight-or-Flight Response Kicking in at the Wrong Time
All of these experiences are associated with the fight-or-flight response we all innately have, but rarely ever experience. It goes back thousands of years ago, when our ancestors would encounter dangers like sabre-tooth tigers and would have to react appropriately in order to survive.
I guess the out-of-body experience I had is part of the reaction. Of course, there's also the adrenaline surging through your body to allow you to fight, or to run faster than you’ve ever run in your life before (like me careening through the supermarket at top speed). And your heart beats faster, pump blood through your body and supply your muscles.
The only difference between me in the supermarket and our ancestors thousands of years ago is that there were no big cats—or any life-threatening dangers—in the supermarket. The fight-or-flight response just kicked in out of the blue—just incredibly unnecessary.
Controlled by Evil Spirits?
After enduring these attacks for quite some time, I became fairly certain that I was being controlled by an evil spirit. That's the control these attacks can have on you. After digging around online, I found I wasn't alone with in this line of thinking. I actually began going through every person in my life that had passed on and that I might have made an enemy of.
Therapists will tell you that it's important to embrace your attack rather than fight it. Although I no longer think I'm being tortured by evil spirts, I do find that it is important to be able to visualise your panic as a person or animal. What has helped me keep my panic under control is visualising it (more on this later). For a time, I saw it as a small animate thing on legs that I can visualise kicking and thumping out my body until its a wreck on the pavement.
This strategy seems to help others as well. I recently read a story in our local paper about an illustrator who had been experiencing panic attacks. He wrote a comic book about it, depicting his panic attack as a monkey. One of the last illustrations was the monkey running away—on fire. He must have come to the same realisation that it's best to fight your attack. It's interesting, though, that he told the reviewer he'd much rather they communicate via email rather meet him face-to-face. We all know that feeling.
Dr. Katherine Shear, Psychology Professor at Columbia University, Explains Panic Attacks
Takeaways From the Interview With Dr. Shear
Dr. Shear makes some interesting comments in this interview:
- From their research, they believe that panic attacks are brought on by a subtle bodily sensation, reminiscent of the idea that you may nearly pass out in a public place. She goes on to say that people that get panic attacks are much more sensitive to inner body sensations and that this could well be the trigger. Perhaps you feel a slight heart palpitation, whereas others do not.
- This bodily sensation causes a catastrophic misinterpretation of what is likely just a minor event.
- Dr. Shear also says that people with panic attacks suffer from a phobia of their own bodily sensations. Treatment is the same as with any other phobia: exposure therapy. To treat an irrational fear of cats, for example, patients are encouraged to be near or to interact with cats. For panic attacks, they treat it by invoking the bodily sensations by, for example, making a person run in place until until their heart rate is much faster than normal.
Learning More About the Amygdala and the Root of Panic Attacks
Through reading about more about panic attacks, I learned about a structure in our brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped piece of the brain responsible for processing survival instincts, memory, and emotions such as fear. Although I learnt to loathe my amygdala, you can’t question the brilliance of it and the speed in which it operates. As soon as the amygdala processes fear, it sends signals to other parts of your body to react immediately.
I also learnt that to save your brain processing time and react more quickly, the amygdala stores memories of people, places, and experiences that have previously evoked certain emotions. For example, in my situation, when trying to walk calmly into a supermarket, the amygdala would tell my brain, “ Hey, we’ve been here before. It’s a scary place. React accordingly.” So even though I might have calmed myself down prior to walking through the supermarket doors, as soon as I was inside, fear would take hold. That's my amygdala remembering what has happened here before and initiating a panic response, despite my efforts to calm myself. The amygdala's a tough nut to crack.
Why Can't I Just Remove It?
As the amygdala's the single most important part of the puzzle in panic attacks I actually wondered if it was possible to have it removed. There's little evidence of it happening in humans, but they have removed the amygdala from rats and the result has been that the rat is no longer vaguely fearful of a cat. Problem is that the amygdala also makes many important decisions and forms a lot of the emotions in the brain, so removal just to rid yourself of panic attacks isn't an option.
Can I Train My Amygdala?
Can I try and beat the amygdala at its own game. This would involve a lot of what’s known as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Because my amygdala had memorised what it considered to be bad situations, I had to "reset" my amygdala. The plan was to repeat to myself—once I was inside a supermarket—that everything was fine and that there was no danger.
After about six months of CBT, I found that I no longer felt the compulsion to sprint out of the supermarket, although the anxiety would repeat from time to time.
I must break in here and say that as a traditional guy, all of this sounds rather pathetic and weak. That was probably why for three years, I never told my wife about what was going on inside my head. She never guessed it because on the outside, I would appear normal. I would share jokes, ask questions, answer questions, have a conversation—but at the same time, I really just want to be alone to process what’s going on at that moment and get over it.
Treatment Options for Panic Attacks
Although, I considered seeing a therapist, I never went to see one. I just thought that I would like to get rid of these panic attacks on my own, my reasoning being that it wouldn't take too long, no matter how agonising it was. I also thought a therapist would be a waste of time and money unless the therapist also had first-hand experience with panic attacks. I just mean that they truly wouldn't understand what was going on. I have read that CBT is the go-to treatment but that it has had mixed results, as it did for me.
A couple of years ago, I gave in and went to my doctor who prescribed Diazepam. I had never taken this medication in my life, but I just couldn’t take the daily grind of it all any longer. Diazepam worked for me. For the first time in years, I went out and I felt just like every other calm person. I planned on only taking it for 10 days, the logic being that my brain would have adjusted to being "normal" by the tenth day, and I wouldn't need to depend on the medicine anymore.
Well, I was wrong. The eleventh day was hell like it had always been. However, I didn’t want to get hooked on these things. I found that just having one in my pocket was usually enough to get through the day. I also found that if I did have an attack—by this time, the attacks were minor but uncomfortable—just putting a Diazepam in my mouth was pretty much instant relief, even though medically, it takes about an hour to take effect. Perhaps a sugar pill could have worked just as well.
Is There a Natural Alternative to Diazepam?
Although this isn't an official treatment for anxiety or panic attacks, and much research still needs to be done on their uses, effectiveness, and safety, I discovered that CBD oil (cannabidiol) can help as well. CBD is a cannabis-based medication that is popping up everywhere nowadays. A few drops of oil under the tongue per serving, and it soothes anything from chronic pain to seizures to anxiety.
I'm familiar with cannabis because as a kid, I smoked a bit of it, but CBD is different in that it doesn't make you high. It works quite quickly and just calms you down. In terms of what strength to get, I found that I needed a 1500 mg dose to feel any effect, although this may differ person to person. Most labels will say you can still drive and work normally after taking it, but to be safe, it's probably best to test it first. Before trying any new medication or supplement, talk to your doctor to see if it's safe or right for you.
Also, a word of caution: don't get it confused with hemp oil, which may be advertised by some retailers as having similar health benefits. Hemp oil is mainly used in cooking. Amazon won’t allow vendors to sell CBD oil on their site, but there are plenty of retailers that can be found with a quick Google search. It can be pricey for just a small bottle, but it will last you a month or two.
Look up how to control panic attacks and the most familiar solution is breathing. Generally, the instructions are:
- Take one deep breath
- Hold it for a count of four or six
- Slowly release.
Well, I've got to say that this never worked well for me. I found that I needed more to distract me than just the counting. My variation of this breathing technique is to use the same breathing technique I used when I was a smoker about ten years ago. I'd pretend I was smoking by raising an imaginary cigarette to my lips, sucking the breath in, holding it in my lungs, and then releasing it.
Another commonly suggested relaxation move is meditation. When I was a 20-year-old, I studied meditation for awhile and have my own Indian derived mantra. The type of meditation I studied was a matter of sitting quietly by yourself, closing your eyes, and repeating a mantra over and over, keeping it in sync with your breathing until your breathing gets slower and slower.
'Om' is a well known mantra that you can use. If you do it properly, after about ten minutes, you'll feel your mind slowly sink down until it appears to be around your chest. Quite an extraordinary feeling and not in the least unsettling. Strangely, you can remain in this state even with distractions around you, say, a telephone ringing or a bus driving past your house.
Meditation might work well for some, but unfortunately, I never found meditation to be helpful during a panic attack. For me, I found it takes too long. You've got so much chatter going on in your head that it just took too long to calm down.
Identifying Things: A Method That Instantly Calms Me Down During Panic Attacks
Although this isn't a typical relaxation technique, I found I could instantly calm my mind during a panic attack by identifying people and objects as fast as I could. Anything and everything around me, I'd try to name them in my head as quickly as possible.
Girl wearing red scarf, sign saying don't walk, lamppost, man with hat, boy with white socks, window with shadow on the top left—you get the picture. I go as fast as I can and repeat the same objects again if I run out. Usually within about a minute, I will have taken back control from the panic.
Facing the Panic Attacks Head-On (Mindfulness)
As an Enemy to Defeat
Having had enough of these attacks, I woke up one morning and decided that if I was going to enjoy life again, I would have to stop these attacks for good. But this seemed like a daunting task. In a sense, I was David, and the panic attacks were Goliath. I was determined to conquer Goliath.
That morning, as soon as I left the house, I kept repeating to myself, "Goliath, you are never going to enter my body again." I swore at him until I got tired of it. And if there was a slight shiver of an attack, I'd go hard at him again, telling him to get out and never ever come back.
Initially, this fight-fire-with-fire approach seemed to work, but man, it was tiring! I seemed to be spending the whole day fighting Goliath.
I gave in. This wasn't the way.
As a Friend in Need
Defeated by pure exhaustion from fighting Goliath, I caved in and decided to accept my panic attacks. To my surprise, the relief came naturally.
Whenever I experienced an attack, I tried treating it as a friend rather than an enemy. I thought of it as a friend in a little distress. It was up to me to calm my friend down. I used soothing, welcoming words:
"Come right in, feel at home."
"Not feeling so good today?" "A little edgy today?"
"Hey, calm down; you'll be right in a minute or two."
This worked like a charm! Nothing has worked faster.
Truly, within minutes, my attack would no longer be noticeable, and I would be back in control. I've found that this technique worked in any situation—for me, at least.
If I felt an attack coming on while talking to people in a crowded room, I would have to excuse myself for ten minutes. Outside, I would talk to this attack. When I've got control back, I would walk back inside.
Determination Is Key
It's been over six months since I started treating my panic attacks as a friend in need. I've taken no medication, and I very rarely have an attack. It took a long time—a lot of trial and error—but determination is the key to finding lasting relief. You may find that what works for me doesn't work for you, but that's the thing; be determined to find what works for you.
A Book That Accurately Describes Panic Attacks and Can Help You Overcome Them
I want to mention because, in desperation, I put a feeler out on the net a few years ago and someone suggested it. It's the only book I've read on the subject of panic attacks. When you read it, you can tell McDonagh has genuinely suffered badly in the past was able to get through. He can describe my own experiences in detail as fast as I can. Dare by Barry McDonagh
The book gave me quite a few pointers and is a good guide to get you through. If anything, you'll know you're not the only one in the world suffering from these hideous attacks.
He has had over 900 positive reviews, so it seems I'm not the only one to get something out of it.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.