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Stop a Panic Attack With Three Simple Steps

Updated on August 30, 2017
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Denise has struggled with mental illness most of her life. She also has family members with mental illness. She speaks from experience.

A panic attack doesn't mean that we have to end up in the hospital.
A panic attack doesn't mean that we have to end up in the hospital.

"Please, stop the car! Take me to the hospital! I can't breathe. I just know I am going to die!" I screamed to my husband. He quickly turned off the highway and took me to the nearest hospital. No one seemed to understand how desperate I felt. They were all moving so slowly!

I lay on the gurney for what seemed like ages while tests were run and a doctor was summoned. By the time he arrived, however, my symptoms were gone and I was discharged with a directive to follow up with my regular physician.

Once again, no one knew what was wrong. I had been in the emergency room more times than I could count. What appeared to be heart attacks, asthma attacks, and broken bones were nothing in the end. As my body relaxed, the symptoms dissipated and I was discharged to go home.

Finally, I ended up suicidal and was admitted to the Mental Health Unit. The diagnosis was General Anxiety Disorder. Through the wisdom of competent psychiatrists and psychologists, I became acquainted with Dr. Edmund Bourne and The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. I came to the understanding that I was experiencing panic attacks.

Dr. Bourne talks about the importance of recognizing the distorted thought patterns that lead to our anxiety. These thought patterns elicit specific reactions in our bodies, escalating the feelings of fear and panic.

The following were fueling mine:

  1. Assumptions - I thought I knew what others were thinking about me.
  2. Exaggeration- I read more into what was happening than was reality.
  3. Blame - I tried to put the responsibility for my issues on others rather than accepting my part in the outcome.
  4. Criticism - I allowed no room for error in my own actions or that of others.
  5. Perfectionism - my expectations were too high, and no one could meet them.

Through the use of these distorted thinking mechanisms, my body was on fire with the flames of panic and I was burning my feelings of self-worth to ashes.

The Anatomy of a Panic Attack

Panic attacks are like a tidal wave, sneaking up on us when we are unaware. We don't see it coming until the symptoms are so strong that they overpower us, washing away our ability to control our emotions and see things as they really are.

A panic attack affects all systems of the body. It may manifest itself in many different forms. For me, the most common was an asthma attack, however, I also experienced attacks that, to me, felt like heart attacks. At one point, I had such excruciating pain in my tailbone that I thought it was broken. The table below lists what happens physically during a panic attack and the emotional response that follows.

Physiology
Emotional Response
Release of adrenaline
An overwhelming wave
Hastening of digestive action, rumbling in the stomach and intestines
The assumption of guilt and an immediate decrease in self-worth
Increased blood flow, pain and tension in the muscle tissue
Fear that something is terribly wrong
Blood rushes to the organs, arteries and vessels constrict, making the heart beat faster and the blood pressure rise
Feelings of impending doom
An increase in nerve impulses throughout the body, tingling and numbing sensations
Immediate panic
Rapid respiration, light-headedness and hyper-ventilation
Visions of death
Distorted thought patterns are like a match put on gasoline when they accompany the release of adrenaline. The immediate result is panic.
Distorted thought patterns are like a match put on gasoline when they accompany the release of adrenaline. The immediate result is panic.

Once the adrenaline begins to subside in the system, then comes the downhill slide. The following progression is typical:

  • Breathing slows down, the head begins to ache, and reality comes back into focus
  • The shock and horror of the situation are magnified by the twitching of muscle tissue as the numbness and tingling subside
  • The heart slows down, dropping the blood pressure. Fatigue sets in, along with embarrassment and a desire to hide or disappear
  • The face becomes flushed and the skin feverish and hot as blood flows back into the arteries of the limbs and extremities. Depression follows.
  • Vomiting and diarrhea are common as the digestive system flushes out the additional chemicals. Despair and despondency are automatic.
  • Adrenal exhaustion necessitates sleep for recuperation of body functions

Have you ever experienced a panic attack?

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It is possible to stop a panic attack

As children, we were taught that when our bodies are on fire, we are to "Stop, drop, and roll." I found that when I used my own version of this three step process, I could diffuse a panic attack and stay away from the emergency room.

Stop - I would stop what I was doing, then, picture a stop sign in my mind.

Drop - I would drop down on all fours. This made me look at my belly and concentrate on my breathing. I would watch my belly go up and down as I took deep breaths. It also took my mind off what was happening. At first, I would find a private place to do it where no one was around. Eventually I was able to do it standing or sitting, even in the company of others without drawing attention to myself.

Roll - I would roll over and lie flat on my back with my knees up in a tent. When I did this, I put my hands on my belly to continue with the deep breathing. I also closed my eyes, and thought of a pleasant place or a relaxing song.

After doing this three step process enough times in the privacy of my home, I was able to get to the point that I could perform it in my mind and stop the panic attacks from happening in public.

When we take the time to breathe deeply, we help ourselves feel more calm.
When we take the time to breathe deeply, we help ourselves feel more calm.

Rebuilding feelings of self worth

A panic attack is humiliating. The simple fact that we are still alive afterwards attests to the fact that we were wrong. We didn't die. We lived through it, only to be terrified that it will happen again.

It is no wonder that people who experience panic attacks are at high risk of self-harm. The feelings of hopelessness and despair are overwhelming. We may even feel ostracized by the very people that we need support from the most. Our own family members may not understand what we are going through or how they can help.

The feelings of vulnerability we experience are commensurate with those experienced by someone who has been robbed or abused. We may even have nightmares, re-traumatizing ourselves, knowing that we are at risk of being humiliated once again in the near future.

The only way to combat these feelings is to increase our own ability to nurture ourselves and build up the delicate feelings of self-worth that have been damaged by the anxiety attack.

To increase feelings of self-worth, look for a soft word, a gentle touch, a kind deed, a hug, a kiss, a squeeze of the hand, or any other kindness given. Take a walk and get in touch with nature. Breathe in the beauty that is all around.

The following affirmations are key:

I am valued. Feelings of value come from people calling us by name, looking directly into our eyes, or listening when we speak.

I am worthwhile. Feeling worthwhile is an abiding feeling that we are of worth because we are human.

I am able. We are born with the ability to learn. We learn from everything we see, hear, touch, and taste. Life is a process of discovery.

I am needed. These messages come from people asking for our service, talents, or presence in activities or projects they are doing.

Affirmations are statements of truth that, when repeated often, build our feelings of self-worth. Like liquid gold, they quench the thirst our souls have for recognition, love, and belonging.

With our self-worth is intact, we have the strength to recognize and refute the distorted thinking patterns that enter our thoughts before they have a chance to undermine us and leave us vulnerable to anxiety and panic.

When we nurture ourselves, we are able to provide the unconditional love we need to strengthen our feelings of self-worth.
When we nurture ourselves, we are able to provide the unconditional love we need to strengthen our feelings of self-worth.

When we are our own best friend, we don't have to depend upon others to build us up. We have within us the unconditional love needed to strengthen ourselves. One way to do this is through positive self-talk. Another way is to give ourselves time to do things that we enjoy.

As we give ourselves room to grow and progress in life, we don't have to let anxiety attacks rule us. With the three-step process explained above, we can overcome them in such a way that we once again have meaning and purpose.

© 2017 by Denise W. Anderson. All rights reserved.

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    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 9 days ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      You are welcome, Dianna. Sometimes, the difficult experiences of our lives will trigger these types of issues. I appreciate your comments.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 10 days ago

      I have a friend who suffered from panic attacks after her divorce. It was terrifying for her. Thanks for sharing your story and tips on how to deal with the anxiety.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 2 weeks ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      The website "HealDove" is a subsidiary of Hub Pages. If you type Hub Pages into your web browser, you can click on the page that allows you to become a member. There is no cost to post to the site, and if your content is found commensurate with articles published on HealDove, your article may be forwarded to that site. There are requirements for Hub Pages content that you will be given when you become a member and create your on-line profile.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 2 weeks ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      The website "HealDove" is a subsidiary of Hub Pages. If you type Hub Pages into your web browser, you can click on the page that allows you to become a member. There is no cost to post to the site, and if your content is found commensurate with articles published on HealDove, your article may be forwarded to that site. There are requirements for Hub Pages content that you will be given when you become a member and create your on-line profile.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 3 weeks ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks, Mona. Many people do not understand how disabling anxiety can be, especially when panic attacks are involved. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 weeks ago from Philippines

      This is very helpful information that will be helpful to many people. I never realized that anxiety has so many side effects. Your advice on what to do in a panic attack is most useful.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 3 weeks ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Dora, I appreciate your comments. The "side affects" of anxiety are so all-encompassing! We don't realize how detrimental they are until we are overwhelmed to the point that we can't function. The steps to take are concrete and simple, and anyone can do them.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 3 weeks ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      That is interesting, Abdelhakim. I didn't write about it in this article, but at one time in my life, I thought that something was seriously wrong with my digestive system and I went through a barrage of tests. There was "nothing wrong," but later, I realized that it was my anxiety flaring. I wish that I knew then what I know now. It would have saved me thousands of dollars in medical bills! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 3 weeks ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      You would most likely remember if you had a panic attack, Bill, it is a traumatic thing to experience. I hope that the article helps Bev's daughter. Thanks for sharing it with her.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 3 weeks ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks, Eric. I like to think of it that way. When I was getting ready to go back to school as an "older than average" student, I envisioned voices calling out to me saying, "Help Me!" Without that incentive, I probably would have holed up like a hermit and let the world go by! One of the strongest voices, however, was my own, and those next were in my immediate family. I often go back to my own writings when I am having issues so that I can relearn what I did the last time that helped. I appreciate your comments!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Fantastic article. A funny thing happened to me on my way to 70. I got what is referred to as "a larger waist and clay feet". For some reason confidence just kind of would desert me. Granted fear and anxiety were more often than not fairly well justified. My go to was "Feeling Good, handbook" by Burns.

      And I was reading a strange paper of on Google Scholar and this gal figured that if we count to ten to calm down, what would happen if we counted down from 5. It has amazing effects on getting us to take action like you describe.

      I really like your articles on such matters. Perhaps God gave you this thorn in your side so that you can help countless others.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 3 weeks ago from New Delhi, India

      A very well written and presented hub and quite relatable!

      Most of us do encounter these panic attacks at some point in life. I feel I have learnt to handle them now in a much better way.

      Your suggestions are very useful and helpful for those who are struggling with such situations.

      Thanks for sharing!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I don't think this has ever happened to me, Denise. Seems like I'd remember, right? :) Bev's daughter, though, has these attacks often. I'm going to forward this to her, so thank you.

    • Aelbarsha profile image

      Abdelhakim Elbarsha 3 weeks ago from Benghazi/Libya

      Thanks for this great article. Deep breathing works well in aborting a panic attack in a motivated person. I have a long experience with this as a significant number of patients referred to my clinic for functional digestive symptoms, suffer panic attacks of variable severity. They often report good response to deep breathing.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      Very insightful and educational. Thanks for the very clear explanation and the suggestions on how to deal with a panic attack in three steps. "The feelings of hopelessness and despair are overwhelming." You gave us practical ideas to help with that.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 3 weeks ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Life is difficult when we experience these types of things, mband. We often find ourselves struggling silently for fear that others won't understand. I have experienced the consequences of this first hand. I ended up suicidal and in the Mental Health Unit as a result. Now that I have learned how to deal with it, I have written extensively on the subject. See my other articles that are available through my profile page. I appreciate you feeling comfortable enough to share your struggles with us.

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      mband 3 weeks ago

      Thank you for your article. I am struggling with emotions that I think are close to what you describe. I am very scared to talk with those closest to me about certain things and my mind begins racing and I want to get away. I wish my life were better.