Understanding panic attacks, panic attack triggers, and what you can do to manage panic attacks can help decrease the fear and dread of having them. While they are fairly common, for those who don’t experience them, witnessing one can be a helpless, scary experience as well and knowing what you can do to be supportive is incredibly beneficial. As a person who’s experienced several panic attacks throughout my life, I know first had that being equipped with knowledge has been key to both preventing and coping with panic, so it doesn’t impact my life.
Panic Attack Triggers
Panic attacks are often triggered by something happening in our environment or internally. Learning to recognize panic attack triggers can help you prevent them before they even start.
Teed Up for Panic
Are you teed up for a panic attack? Factors like lack of sleep, poor nutrition, dehydration, and alcohol and caffeine consumption can set you up for a panic attack. Really anything that stresses your body, including stress and overstimulation puts you at greater risk. Being mindful of managing these risk factors especially when you know you’ll be engaging in something anxiety producing in the near future is vitally important.
Rumination, worry, and perseverating can all be triggers. When our minds become tangled in a web of negative or fear-based thoughts (including the fear of panic attacks themselves) we are much more likely to kick our stress response into high gear. Learning to manage your thoughts by meditating or starting an affirmation practice can be very beneficial.
Since you can’t control others or the world around you, you can only control yourself external stimuli can be difficult to manage. You can’t change what’s happening in the world or the way others may think of you or treat you. What you can do is learn to identify the external stimuli that are panic attack triggers for you and minimize (or eliminate) your exposure to them. Remember that if you are already teed up for panic due to other stressors it is always best to avoid external stimuli that could be triggering.
The Difference Between Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Because anxiety and panic attacks often go hand in hand it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. After all, anxiety can also manifest itself in physical symptoms such as insomnia, headaches, nausea, pain, and even fever or illness. Unlike panic attacks though, the symptoms of anxiety are often more chronic and persistent. Panic attacks are acute, relatively short, and tend to be disruptive to your current activities. While you might be able to dismiss the physical symptoms of anxiety, you are very unlikely to dismiss those of a panic attack.
If you’re wondering “how will I know if I’m having a panic attack” understanding the typical stages and symptoms may help.
Symptoms of a panic attack
While each person may experience different symptoms and in differing severity these are some of the most reported ones:
- Tightness or pain in chest
- Increase in heart rate, heart palpitations, or increase in blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Tremors or shaking
- Numbness or tingling
- Chills or Hot flashes
- Muscle tension including feeling like throat is tight or choking sensation
- Pronounced feelings of fear, dread, or hopelessness
- Nausea or abdominal pain
- Feeling of dissociation or disconnect from self
While a panic attack is occurring these symptoms can be scary to experience or witness and can even cause fear that something is medically wrong. Panic attacks typically last under 10 minutes so your symptoms should begin to subside shortly, but those 10 minutes are precious. There is no shame in heading to the hospital to get it checked (better to be safe). I’ve done this a couple times myself and always encountered medical staff who were supportive and reassuring that I had done the right thing.
Stages of a panic attack
The way stages of a panic attack present can very greatly. Sometimes they can come on unexpectedly and suddenly while other times they may feel like they are building more slowly. Being aware of your early panic symptoms can help you stop them in their tracks. I often feel dissociated, nauseous, and chest tightness early on. When this happens, I now know it’s time to slow down and begin panic attack home treatment and to let others in my house know what’s happening so they can better support me. After onset comes the full experience of the panic attack which again generally lasts under 10 minutes and then after there is a wind down period. It is very common to feel exhausted after a panic attack and important that you rest and practice self-care.
Panic Attack Treatment at Home
Learning treatment at home can make panic attacks much more tolerable and even reduce your chances of having them. The best panic attack treatments involve reconnecting with the present and leaning into the panic (which I know sounds crazy).
To reconnect with the present…
- Sit in a chair and create awareness of it’s support and how it feels
- Walk barefoot in the grass
- Use breathing exercises
- Name 5 things you can see, 4 you can feel, 3 you can hear, 2 you can smell, and 1 you can taste.
- Mentally list 10 things you can see out of your peripheral vision (keep your head still and look out the side of your eyes)
- Count backward from 100 by 3s or 7s or say the alphabet backward.
To lean into the panic
- Allow yourself to experience the sensations in your body.
- Become curious about the experience and observe it as if you are doing a science project.
- Remind yourself or if possible express gratitude to your body for this very important and normal function. Panic is an acute stress response that is designed to keep us safe (even though it may not feel like that in the moment.)
One of the most common but counterproductive things to do when experiencing a panic attack is to try to push through it or squelch it. And one of the most common ways others try to help is to tell you it will be ok or to try to logically explain why it’s not necessary. Understanding that panic is a natural response to a perceived acute danger can be very helpful in normalizing the experience.
While it would be nice if our bodies didn’t respond to a call from mom, crisis halfway around the world, or speaking in front of 5 people as if it were a tiger chasing us, it does happen. And it happens to most of us. Don’t worry about looking silly, disappointing those around you, or embarrassing yourself. There needs not be stigma about panic attacks so go about your life, enjoy, and know that if you do experience a panic attack you know just what to do to get through it. Trust your body and trust yourself.