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September 24, 2020 • read

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Five ways to prevent panic attacks

Shortness of breath, dizziness, fear — these are telltale signs of a panic attack. Your body launches into fight or flight mode. And while you’re experiencing these unnerving symptoms, you might wonder why you suddenly feel so upset. 

Panic attacks can happen because of a trigger, like the reminder of a traumatic event. But for some people, especially those living with a panic disorder, panic attacks can happen at any time for no obvious reason. 

Panic attacks are more common than you might think. In Canada, two thirds of adults  have panic attacks each year. While they can be a scary experience in the moment, the good news is that they’re treatable with the right support. Here’s a look at exactly what panic attacks are, how to know if you’re having one, and how to prevent them.

Panic attacks versus panic disorder

A panic attack is sudden, intense anxiety or fear when there is no real danger. The intensity usually increases for around 10 minutes before the attack subsides, though in some cases panic attacks can last 20 minutes or longer. Some common symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • A sense of deep fear, anxiety, or panic.
  • Shortness of breath, or rapid breathing.
  • Sweating.
  • Chills.
  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • Chest pain.
  • Tightness or a lump in your throat.
  • Numbness or tingling.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness.
  • Nausea.
  • Confusion or feeling detached from your surroundings.
  • Feeling like you’re losing control.
  • Fear of dying.

Not everyone who has panic attacks has panic disorder. The key difference is predictability. Some people who have panic attacks know which situations make them panicky. For example, someone with an intense fear of flying knows they’re more likely to have an attack on an airplane than at the grocery store. But for people with panic disorder, the attacks are frequent and seemingly random. This causes increased anxiety because the attacks are unpredictable. This causes behaviours like:

  • Changing daily routines to avoid places or situations where you’ve had an attack before.
  • Avoiding busy public spaces out of fear of losing control in a crowded place.
  • Sitting near exits or bathrooms when dining out so you can easily leave to manage an attack.

What causes panic attacks?

Panic attacks are caused by remembering previous trauma, or they can be in reaction to a clear event. Other times they can be a sign of underlying health issues, like:

  • Heavy drinking
  • Caffeine sensitivity
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Too much nicotine
  • Prolonged stress

How to prevent panic attacks

When you have panic attacks, it can feel like your brain is working against you. But your mind can actually be your ally when you’re panicking if you practice ways to keep calm. 

1. Diaphragm breathing

When you panic and your breathing speeds up, you’re at risk of hyperventilating. When you breathe normally, you inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. But when you panic, you don’t breathe out fully before taking your next in-breath. That leads to a buildup of carbon dioxide in your system, which makes your blood vessels contract. Tight blood vessels make it harder for your heart to pump blood around your body. That’s why you might feel lightheaded, tingly, or nauseous when you’re having a panic attack. 

You can prevent a panic attack from intensifying through diaphragm breathing. Your diaphragm is a muscle, located below your lungs. Every time you breathe in it contracts to make room for your lungs as they fill up with air. Focus on your diaphragm and take deep breaths in for a count of five, hold for five seconds, and then breathe out for five counts. You’ll notice more movement in your stomach than in your chest with this type of breathing. 

2. Mindfulness techniques

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in a given moment. If you’re prone to panic attacks, mindfulness techniques can help you stay grounded. They improve your ability to observe your feelings instead of instantly reacting to them. Try practicing mindfulness when you’re not having an attack so you’ll be ready if one comes. To begin:

  • Pay close attention to your senses. Identify all the sounds you can hear, what you can feel, and what you can see. 
  • Do a body scan. Gently note how you’re feeling in your body from head to toe.
  • Focus on your breath. Breathe slowly and intentionally, concentrating on the sensation of inhaling and exhaling.

3. Exercise

Studies show that moving your body releases mood-boosting endorphins, reduces sensitivity to pain, and improves your sense of wellbeing. Exercise also helps you fall asleep and stay asleep for longer. Quality sleep is an essential part of mood regulation, and poor sleep has been linked to anxiety and depression.

4. Limit stimulants like caffeine

Caffeine is one of the most widely consumed stimulants in the world. If you’ve ever had too much, you know that it can leave you sweaty and shaky. The rush of energy caffeine provides causes some people to panic because it mimics the symptoms of an attack. Avoiding or limiting stimulants will help keep your body and mind in a more restful state.

5. Journaling

Keeping a journal of thoughts and feelings, especially at times when you feel anxious, is a great way to release what’s troubling you. With a journal you can track situations that trigger your panic attacks as well as the situations that make you feel your best. You can also use the journal to log your symptoms over time, which paints a helpful picture of recurring issues.

Panic attacks are scary, but the good news is that it’s possible to manage them. Once you get to know the physical manifestations of your panic response you can work on strategies to minimize their impact. Likewise, learning to navigate situations that cause you to panic will give you back some control over your mental health. 

These tips are a great place to start, but if you’re feeling like you need more support, our psychotherapists are here to help. 

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