Panic Attacks Are Treatable – Don’t Think They’re Not!

Panic attacks are pretty common – the National Institute of Mental Health estimates they affect about 6 million adults in the US alone.

But knowing that doesn’t make it any less disturbing when your body starts acting like you’re suddenly under a life-or-death threat, even though you’re in no imminent danger.

One minute you’re talking to a friend or making dinner or climbing into bed for the night, and the next minute you’re shaking and sweating while your stomach and heart fight over which one gets to jump out of your body first.

To diagnose panic attacks, therapists look for four or more of these symptoms:

  • sweating
  • trembling
  • shortness of breath
  • choking sensation
  • chest pain
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • fear of losing your mind
  • fear of dying
  • feeling hot or cold all over
  • numbness or tingling in part or all of your body
  • heart palpitations (racing, pounding, skipping a beat)
  • feeling unusually detached

At their mildest, panic attacks can be waves of anxiety that come and go. At their worst, they’re full-body experiences that start abruptly, ramp up quickly, and make you think you’re about to pass out or die. They’re terrifying, so it’s no surprise so many people try to cope with them by staying away from the situations they were in when they had one. If you suddenly started to feel overwhelmingly anxious every time you drove down a certain street to get to work, why not just take another route? Problem solved!

But not really. This is how phobias are born and they can seriously constrict your life. And besides, panic attacks aren’t necessarily related to anything you’re actually doing. So once you start cutting out the things you were doing when your body decided it needed to send out an all-systems emergency alert, the list of triggers you’re avoiding could get longer and longer. Eventually, you could give up going to work, driving, or leaving the house at all. So avoidance is no solution; it exacerbates the problem.

And it’s treatable. The gold standard for treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), including guided imagery, sometimes combined with medication. 

But if you don’t want to see a therapist. or can’t afford one, please keep in mind that anything you can do to train yourself to get better and better at the skill of self-soothing and emotional regulation is a help for panic, whether that’s mindfulness, guided imagery, yoga, progressive relaxation or breathwork.. Any and all of it can help you divert panic attacks when you feel them starting, end them faster once they’ve begun, and reduce their intensity while they’re happening.

And you get better and better at it with practice. Plus, these methods help with other kinds of mastery and life challenges as well.  Check it out – it’s a skill that will heroically show up when you need it, and it stays with you decades after you’ve had your last episode. If there’s a downside, we don’t know it.