Pushing Past Panic Attacks
Illustration by Mallory Taylor
Content Warning: Dealing with Panic Attacks
Anyone who has experienced a panic attack will tell you just how unpleasant they are. Panic attacks are different from moments of panic. Those instances where you’re frantically rushing to get somewhere so you won’t be late or that feeling you get when you lost something important, are not necessarily what you would feel during a panic attack, but some of the symptoms can be similar. Before I get into the science of panic attacks, let me tell you a bit about my experience. My anxiety journey starts at the beginning of grade nine; I was so filled with anxious thoughts and feelings that it would present itself through physical symptoms. For a while, it was never fully clear why I felt the way I did, and it wasn’t until I saw my family doctor and did some self-reflection that I realized I had an anxiety disorder. After finally having a reason as to why I was feeling the way I did - and with the help of my mom (aka my superhero) I was able to push past the feelings I had and learn how to manage them better instead of the other way around. The last two years of high school went much better than my first two years, and I thought everything was sunshine and rainbows (with the occasional storm cloud, of course). I graduated from high school and went off to University, but the added pressure it brought made me realized my anxiety never really left. I am currently in my last year of University and I can tell there has been a big increase in my anxiety level - so much so that I have developed a panic disorder. I wouldn’t say University is the direct cause of my increased anxiety and panic, but I think the way I handled stressful situations led to my anxiety increasing. Sometimes it seems simply living in today’s world is anxiety and panic-inducing enough. Although I have a lot of sunshine and rainbow moments, every day my anxiety storm cloud likes to peep through. Sometimes, there will be a reason and other times a panic attack will come out of nowhere. Below, I will list some of the things I do when panic attacks like to creep up on me, but first, let’s learn about what they even are in the first place!
Panic attacks are an interesting phenomenon and I found that once I understood more about them, it was easier to prepare for them. You never really know you have a panic disorder until you actually have a panic attack, but even then, it doesn’t necessarily develop into a disorder. Only a trained professional can diagnose you, but the common method of diagnosis is based on an individual meeting the symptoms as set out within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is a large book (we’re talking almost a thousand pages) that is published by the American Psychiatric Association, and which lists mental disorders and their accompanying symptoms. The first edition was published in 1952, and thankfully since then, it has been continually updated with more inclusive terminology. The most recent version (#5) was released in 2013, and in it a panic disorder is defined as an “anxiety disorder based primarily on the occurrence of panic attacks, which are recurrent and often unexpected.” There are many symptoms associated with a panic disorder, however, with one of my majors being in Psychology, I have come to learn that what is within the DSM is not the be-all-end-all. There are a variety of factors that can determine how one feels, and just because your symptoms correlate with the symptoms within the DSM-5, does not mean it is a for sure thing. This is why the role of a mental health professional is extremely important when deciphering symptoms and disorders that may be present in your life, and I highly encourage everyone to take control of their mental health and seek help. Side note: yes, I took Psychology and have an anxiety disorder. I guess you could say I was already well prepared for the subject.
There are many reasons why one may develop a panic disorder, and you can look at it from a biopsychosocial approach. Biologically, there are neurotransmitters that send chemical messages full of information throughout your brain, and when they are not balanced, panic disorder symptoms can often arise. There are many other brain areas that can contribute to those symptoms as well, so this is just one of the theories that scientists have discovered. If you would like to learn more about these brain areas, this journal article published in the Psychiatric Clinics of North America medical journal goes into depth about various neural pathways, signals, and brain areas that correlate with mood and anxiety disorders. Psychologically, anxiety disorders have a high rate of comorbidity, which means that anxiety disorders and panic disorders can often go hand-in-hand. With that being the case, it is important to see what other disorders might be present if you do display panic disorder symptoms. Socially, your environment can play a big role in how you feel physically and emotionally, which is why if you are able to take the time to calm things down in your environment, you can limit the stimulants that might cause uneasiness or stress.
Now that the science lesson is over, let me tell you about my panic attacks. Folks might experience various symptoms when they have a panic attack, but for me the symptoms present as heart-pounding, trembling, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, loss of control, hot flashes, and derealization feelings all at once; sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? There is a theory as to why we experience these types of symptoms and it is referred to as the fight or flight response. Fight refers to the feeling of being in a stressful, life or death situation and choosing to fight for your life, while flight refers to getting the heck out of there and running for your life. Of course, we might not actually be “fighting or flighting” for our lives in this modern society as compared to prehistoric cave dwellers choosing what to do when a hungry tiger wanted to attack them, but the feelings that biologically arise can be similar. The sympathetic nervous system sends messages to your adrenal glands, which are responsible for stress hormones, and these hormones lead to symptoms that one would experience - such as the ones I do. Although I am not faced in a situation with a hungry tiger, my “tiger”, if you will, are crowded and small spaces.
If I am in a crowded space for a long period of time and there is not an easy and accessible way to get out, my flight response kicks into gear in these situations and I can predict that I will most likely have a panic attack. Of course, other times I will have a panic attack for no reason, such as if I’m at the grocery store or even driving! Although there are situations that I know will bring one on, the instances where it is unpredictable, I have prepared myself and am ready to stop it in its tracks (I guess you could say I’m using my “fight” response here). Below are the things I always bring with me that cater to the symptoms I have.
The Author’s Favourite Roll On Essential Oil
The first thing that I carry with me at all times are essential oils, particularly a de-stressing oil. The roll-on I value with my life has natural ingredients like lavender and chamomile that are proven to have calming properties (if you are interested, it can be purchased here). When I notice different triggers in my surroundings, I put the oil on my wrist, rub it in, and take deep breaths whilst smelling it. I notice in an instant that some of my symptoms start to go away, such as my increased heart rate. Even my friends have started asking for my essential oil roll on and we are always in shock every time our stressful symptoms start to diminish. Although it seems like magic, there are scientific studies conducted on lavender oil that prove it works to combat anxiety symptoms. This study in particular, found that it causes a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature, and increased feelings of relaxation and alertness. If you have never tried essential oils and aromatherapy, I highly suggest checking it out and seeing if this natural stress reduction route works to help tackle at least some of the symptoms you may experience.
The next thing that I always have on me, which I’m sure you do too, is my phone. In my previous article, which you can find here, I discuss ways that technology has helped my anxiety symptoms. Utilizing the game apps that I have on my phone has really helped me to distract myself when I desperately need to get out of my own thoughts. I notice in some cases that right before I have a panic attack, my mind is like a hamster on a wheel (multiply that by a thousand), and the fear and accompanying symptoms start to present themselves full force. If I instantly distract myself by doing something that takes a lot of brain power, I notice that I don’t have time to focus on my fears or increasing symptoms because my mind is fully focusing on something else, which in this case would be making sure I don’t lose the game I am playing. The games that you might often scroll past when you’re on the app store, can often be a big help to distract you. After I play a couple of minutes on my chosen game, I notice my symptoms start to subside a bit and make them a bit more manageable. If I do notice my symptoms start to reappear after I play a game and go back to the panic-inducing environment, I always remind myself that if a game took my symptoms away, then there is nothing actually wrong with me, and I know I can always go back to the game if I need to. Of course, there are times when being on your phone is just not possible, and in those times I like to try mental distraction techniques. The one I mainly use is counting backwards from 100 by 3’s. This task is not the easiest thing to do, and that’s the point; using your brainpower to think through the task instead of your anxiety and panic is a good way to distract yourself. I find that counting backwards while taking deep breaths is the best way to carry this step out, otherwise, you will do what I used to do and count down extremely fast when the whole point is to try and take your time and think.
One of the symptoms I always experience when I have anxiety and panic attacks is overheating. Overheating and possibly fainting is also one of my fears, so it doesn’t help when it’s one of my panic attack symptoms. There have been studies, such as this one, that found splashing cold water on your face can help during a panic attack by slowing your heart rate. However, I for one am not into that, especially when I took the time to do my makeup that morning, but I do like the idea of cooling. Instead, I always like to carry a mini fan (a portable, mini, battery-operated fan that acts as an A/C unit that will provide you with blowing cold air). Although it might seem strange to whip out a fan, I promise you it helps cool your body temperature, especially when it’s the summertime and the thirty-degree weather does not mix well with your anxiety-induced elevated body temperature. I once went to an outside concert and was surrounded by thousands of people, and all my friends took turns with the fan, so it really comes in handy! Similar to our phone, if you find it might not be the most appropriate time to take out a fan, I will excuse myself and go to the bathroom and put my hands under cold water. Cooling my hands down automatically lowers my body temperature and it can help with my fear of overheating. Often times just take that breather and cooling down, really helps!
The Author’s Fan
The last thing I bring with me, and this might sound like a cliché, is a ready and prepared mindset. A lot of what you do on your own time at home can help in situations when you’re in public and a panic attack occurs. I like to write and poetry is my way of getting everything that is inside my head out in the universe - whether it’s for other people to read or for my eyes only. Keeping things bottled up inside is not healthy and speaking to someone you trust can make you feel a lot better. But there are times when you don’t want everyone to know what you’re feeling, and that’s okay! I suggest doing what I do and take a couple of minutes to just write what you’re feeling, even if you rip the paper to shreds after. Knowing your thoughts are finally out of your head and on paper is such a freeing feeling! If you take time for yourself, you will notice that things that might have stressed you out before and caused anxiety are not as bad anymore. Taking care of your mental health in between your moments of panic can help you manage those situations better. It’s like going to the store before you run out of something.
The Author’s Notebook
Of course, there are tons of other things I like to carry with me, like my favourite snack and mints that I throw in my bag that can sometimes help me feel better when I’m in a stressful situation. However, the suggestions above help me the most and I encourage you to personalize your bag with things that will help with your symptoms. Being well-prepared is not giving into your anxiety or panic, but it is you acknowledging that panic attacks do happen in your life, and if there are things that can make you feel better, you should embrace it! It demonstrates that you’re thinking and caring about yourself. If there are certain things you bring along with you, let Shameless know so we can assemble one big virtual bag of tips and tricks that we can all use!
About Alexandra Few: Hey, I’m Alex. I’m a twenty-something, astrology obsessed, iced coffee lover, and Netflix connoisseur. I spend my time scrolling through dog Instagram accounts and getting through my day with as little anxiety as possible. You can find me on Instagram.