You know how sometimes, you just need to watch “The Notebook” or listen to Coldplay’s “Fix You” so that you can get in a good cry and then after, you’re good to go? Or maybe you’re one of those strange humans who enjoy terror in a controlled environment and voluntarily subject yourself to horror movies so you can feel alive and afraid in safe scenarios.
Welp, have we got the perfect holiday for you! Apparently, June 18 is International Panic Day and you’re supposed to celebrate by publicly airing out the fears and worries that cause you panic. (Though, for some of us, that’s just a regular Thursday.) This tongue-in-cheek holiday was originally created to bring awareness to mental health issues like panic attacks and panic disorders, which affect 2.7% of the U.S. population.
Thanks to COVID and increased stress in general, more and more people are experiencing less than optimal mental health, and International Panic Day encourages us to slow down, reflect on how we’re doing, and seek help without fear of stigmatization or hesitation. Read on for some quick and easy facts about panic attacks and panic disorder — as well as tips for how to deal with those symptoms.
What is panic disorder?
It’s completely natural and normal for you to feel moments of panic or anxiety during your life — after all, have you ever lost sight of your toddler in the middle of Costco on a busy Saturday morning or found your genius child elbow deep in the toilet?
Panic attacks and panic disorder are slightly different, though. Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder that causes panic attacks — a sudden onset of terror in moments that do not warrant such a response. You can feel out of control or like you’re dying — and because they can happen without warning, you may start avoiding places you’ve had panic attacks or stay home out of fear of having a panic attack in public.
Doctors typically look for at least four of the following symptoms of a panic attack:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest or stomach pain
- Choking sensation
- Vertigo or weakness
- Feel like you’re losing your mind
- Feel like you’re dying
- Feel like you’re detached from yourself
- Feel hot or cold chills
- Numbness or tingling in hands
- Heart palpitations
Panic attacks usually start in young adulthood and are also 2.5 times more likely in women than men — with the gap between women and men widening as age increases. Women are also more likely to suffer debilitating forms of panic disorder and tend to report shortness of breath, feeling like they’re being smothered, and nausea. Men are more likely to report symptoms of sweating and stomach pains.
How to deal with panic attacks
If you suffer from panic attacks or panic disorder, there are some steps you can take to help you cope.
1) Recognize your triggers
Panic attacks can often start when you’re experiencing a lot of stress — which, honestly, isn’t super helpful when you’re existing in COVID times — so if you’re about to enter a period of increased stress (or you’re currently in that season), you may want to speak to a mental health professional or be proactive about medication as well as take preemptive measures to eliminate some of that stress.
2) Control your breathing
Because of the mind-body connection, when you physically calm down your body, it can help your mind calm down as well, helping reduce panic attack symptoms. If you are able, focus on taking deep breaths in and out of your mouth, letting the air slowly fill your body for a count of four, hold for a second, and then slowly exhale out your mouth for another count of four.
3) Acknowledge that you’re having a panic attack
It sounds weird, but one of the symptoms of a panic attack is that you feel like you’re dying or have a sense of impending doom. When you remind yourself that you’re experiencing symptoms of a panic attack, which are temporary, instead of death, which is permanent, that tiny little fact can help.
4) Practice mindfulness techniques
Mindfulness practices help ground you in the present and focus on things outside yourself. A common one is to look around you and list 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Some folks will list prime numbers or double numbers (e.g.: 2, 4, 8, 16, ad infinitum) until they feel calmer.
Sometimes, you may need a little more support than immediate methods to help you calm down. Consider some of the following psychotherapy methods to treat panic disorder:
- Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT): a therapy that challenges and changes negative behaviors and helps improve emotional regulation as well as helps develop coping strategies
- Panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy (PFPP): a technique that uncovers past experiences and trauma that may have led to the panic attacks
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: a technique using sensory input such as eye movements to help unblock, process, and recover from trauma like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
6) Take medication
Some folks don’t respond well (or at all) to non-pharmacological approaches and as a result, may need drugs to help. You can take benzodiazepines like Xanax as soon as you realize you’re about to have (or in the midst of) a panic attack, and that may help, too.
Other resources for managing and preventing panic attacks
As much “fun” as public awareness campaigns like International Panic Day can be, it’s only meant to educate and destigmatize. Here are a few additional resources that may help you if you experience panic disorder or panic attacks:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI); 800-950-NAMI (800-950-6264)
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA); 240-485-1001
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Support Groups
- The Anxiety Network: Help and Support
- Inclusive Therapists
- Black Mental Health Alliance
- Asian Mental Health Collective
- Medicine Assistance Tool
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