Very often nothing opens one’s eyes to the daily struggles some face more than a shared experience. I had a partner diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) that suffered daily panic attacks. I didn’t get it until I had my own. Like many I thought panic attacks begin by overthinking worst case scenarios, then getting worked up, and not really knowing how to process that energy. How happily naive I was. I’m on the front porch of a house I’ve put a bid in to buy chatting with my real estate agent and long time friend, “hypothetically, if I want to move in 5 years like I always do, how do I go about that.” She laughs charmingly, “that’s easy, you can’t!” I’m hyperventilating, seeing spots, sweating… basically no bueno. My partner casually tells me, “honey, you just need to breathe.” I shot back that I was a grown man with real problems going on right now, I felt like she was talking down to me. As many times in our relationship though, she was right. Had I known how panic attacks happen, what helps in the moment, and what helps avoid panic attacks, I believe my experience would have been much easier.
Nuts and Bolts
So how does this unfun show begin? Not on purpose, or even consciously. The amygdala and some of the midbrain are the conductors of this lame train. What our friend Amy-G is supposed to do is work with emotions and memories to keep us away from danger and moving toward helpful situations. Intuition, that thing that tells you an alley way or certain people just feel off, that’s Amy-G remembering clues in your environment that led to bad times before. Before a panic attack Amy-G sees things you don’t think about and get’s us ready for much ado about nothing. Here’s how a panic attack cycle works:
- Amy-G sees some not amazing things subconsciously
- Amy-G tells the brain and body to start getting right to fly or fight, get those stress hormones pumping.
- The body, believing sh*t is about to go down, starts moving hormones, blood, and air around like it’s a matter of life or death.
- The frontal lobe, where most of your thinky-thinky happens, begins to wonder and sometimes rationalize what is going on
- Amy-G sees the frontal lobe begin to process something alarming and says, “I knew it! Everything is horrible, more hormones!”
- The body freaks out more, you start freaking out about freaking out, Amy-G rides the self guiding prophecy, and the cycle is in full force.
Fortunately, you only have to break one part of the cycle for the whole thing to stop. Doesn’t matter if it’s Amy-G, your body, or your frontal lobe.
What to do when you’re unfun freaking out
Knowing is only half the battle, now we can focus a bit more on doing. Changing your amygdala is a lengthy process, it took years for it to get where it is today and it’s stubborn, after all it’s kept you alive this long. Your body and conscious thoughts however can be relatively easy to maneuver, it’ll still take some practice though. While this is not the end all, be all list of panic attack aides, it is the simplest, easiest to use, and most available.
- Recognize it is a panic attack.
- Choose to breathe in deeeeeply.
- Count 1.
- Breathe it all out.
- Deep breath? Another one.
- Count 2.
- Breathe the BS out again.
- Repeat until calm
Sounds pedantic, like you’re being treated like a child… that’s how I felt. Only one part of the cycle, just one, needs to be interrupted to end the panic attack, for extra credit we’re adjusting two here. Deep breaths slows your body down, counting distracts your mind, both of these makes Amy-G feel nestled in warm and cozy for a nap. Some like to put all their focus on just one object they can see, others like to repeat a mantra of “It’s just a panic attack, not a heart attack.”
While it is nice that there are some tools to use in the moment, I’m sure most of us would like to just throw the whole diagnosis away. We can kind of do that…
I want off Amy-G’s Wild Ride
I had to take a step back and realize one of the most horrifying moments of my life was an everyday occurrence for my partner, I wasn’t feeling that. For some, an initial set of panic attacks can create a diagnosis for Panic Attack Disorder, panic attacks about maybe having a panic attack, why is this even a thing that’s possible? A fear of spiders doesn’t create more spiders, but panic attacks do? We gotta teach that old dog Amy-G some new tricks.
- Exposure therapy
The goal of any medical intervention is to need the least of it possible, surgeries, medication, and therapy sessions alike. Checking in with a body doctor to rule out things like thyroid or heart conditions is where to start. Check in with a psychiatrist about appropriate medications, make sure you’re a strong advocate for yourself. In my realm of care, we work on exposure therapy and mindfulness. After learning a couple tricks for managing a panic attack, therapists will begin guiding you through mental imagery of triggers for panic attacks to build skills for avoiding or quickly moving through them. Knowing a plane ain’t yo thang allows you to minimize airplane nonsense, rework your cognitive beliefs about planes, and allow you to “go to your happy place” instead of thinking about planes.
So that’s all?
Once I got a brown bag to breathe in and out of and barely avoiding passing out I felt exhausted and frustrated with myself. I began to consider why living in one place for more than 5 years felt immediately like a prison I had to escape to live. At this time of this writing I have lived in that house for 6 years, new personal best! My partner supported me supporting her by looking into where panic attacks come from, what can help during them, and how to defuse them before they go off. Are we 100% free, not yet, but it’s way better and you can be too.
If this resonates with you or someone you know and you’d like to explore some options for support, let me know below.