Anyone who has experienced a panic attack can tell you it’s a terrifying event. Symptoms of a panic attack can range from dizziness and shortness of breath to feeling like you’re choking or experiencing a heart attack. What’s worse, these attacks often occur unexpectedly, forcing people to alter their lives to avoid triggering panic attacks (or live in fear of having one).
During Mental Health Awareness Month, we want to arm readers with tools that can help during a panic attack. We talked with intuitive counselor, therapist, and “anxiety tamer” Jodi Aman, who shared her go-to hack for dealing with panic attacks.
We first want to break down what a panic attack is. Aman told us that panic attacks — and anxiety as a whole — boil down to adrenaline.
When having a panic attack, your prefrontal cortex will pump adrenaline through your body — even when it recognizes that there is no physical danger present, Aman explained. If there is no actual danger and therefore no physical reason to panic, yet you still are, you’ll feel out of control. This lack of control makes the panic worse, increases adrenaline, and the cycle continues.
Knowing that adrenaline is at the root of the issue, Aman told us that we can actually convince ourselves to stop panicking by using logic to, interestingly enough, outsmart our brain. She said,
"If you find yourself panicking, and you cognitively see that you are literally physically safe, (i.e. no scary animal charging at you), you have to say, 'I'm safe. This feeling is just hormones. They'll go away if I remember I am safe.' Panic insinuates a greater intensity, so sometimes it is harder, but this is always the thing that finally calms people down. So it is doable."
"Sometimes people use [the words] panic vs. anxiety to infer a higher intensity, but this is relative. People also use words like 'stress,' 'overwhelmed,' 'uncomfortable,' 'can't,' 'desperate'... and much much more to describe anxiety. They ALL mean an increase in the adrenaline hormone, and so treatment is the same. People can have different intensities of adrenaline and that can create different levels of symptoms. But all symptoms are from adrenaline."
After telling your brain that there is no reason to produce adrenaline (because panic itself is not physically dangerous), Aman recommends focusing in on your breathing and then moving on to another action.
"Don't stay still," she said. "Doing something changes the chemicals in the brain, it releases the GABA hormone that puts the breaks on the adrenaline."
The next time you feel panic creeping in, remember that it cannot hurt you. It might take some time to persuade your brain to stop producing adrenaline, but the result is a calmer and more confident existence.