When a person has a panic attack, the levels of adrenaline and cortisol, which are both stress hormones, increase in the bloodstream. Increases in stress hormone levels are responsible for the physical symptoms you might experience during a panic attack; accelerated heart rate, sweating or trembling, and shortness of breath.
When a person has a panic attack, he or she also experiences cognitive (or thinking) symptoms, such as fear of dying, and fear of losing control or going crazy.
I teach my clients how to use both physical strategies and cognitive strategies to help dismantle an attack given that both types of symptoms are occurring.
I often use a strategy with clients suffering from panic attacks that I learned from a physical therapist. He explained that it is impossible for the body to be both stressed and relaxed at the same time. Based on this fact, he teaches his clients to breathe slowly and deeply from the diaphragm whenever a panic attack starts. This style of breathing is referred to as “deep breathing” or “diaphragmatic breathing,” and it is what you witness when you watch the belly of a small child as he or she sleeps.
When people are taught to exhale all the air from their lungs before they begin to deep breathe, it helps to reduce the level of carbon dioxide that has built up during the early stages of a panic attack, which is helpful because a high level of carbon dioxide can prolong a panic attack.
This strategy of “deep breathing” has successfully helped a large number of clients who have come to me for counselling.
Many people are able to cope more effectively when a panic attack occurs once they understand what a panic attack is. The following is an example of a sample script that consists of about 10 statements (which draws from the information presented in previous posts about What Triggers Panick Attacks and Why we Have them?)
Sample Script: “Ah, I know what this is… It’s a panic attack… I know what to do…. Exhale…. Deep breathe… I am safe…. I saw a white rat… Breathe in…. And out…. I’m safe… I heard a branch snap but there’s no bear… Relax.”
These 10 statements provide an example of how I might counsel a client to create their own script to help them remain calm when an attack starts.
I encourage readers who attempt to utilize the strategies presented in this blog without much success to seek the assistance of an experienced Psychologist. Working as a team with a Psychologist, in counselling you can explore additional reasons for your heightened anxiety, and trial different ways to help you address that anxiety effectively.
Read more about How psychologists diagnose and treat panic attacks and Triggers for panic attacks and Why we have them.
I encourage readers who attempt to utilize the strategies presented in this blog without much success to seek the assistance of an experienced psychologist. Working as a team, you can explore additional reasons for your heightened anxiety, and trial different ways to help you address that anxiety effectively.
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Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta