Five Things You Didn’t Know About Panic Attacks

Anyone who’s ever had panic attacks will tell you that they feel horrible and science knows so little about where they come from. Here are some things we definitely do know:

PANIC ATTACKS FEEL LIKE YOU’RE GOING CRAZY…YOU’RE NOT

Panic attacks feel like a sudden feeling of being overwhelmed or out of control of your mind and body. There is often a significant increase in heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. People may shake or sweat and it is really common to think that you are having a heart attack or going insane. Lots of people get GI issues including feeling nauseous or getting an upset stomach. Panic attacks generally feel dreadful, like your body and mind are running wild without your consent.

THEY CAN HAPPEN ALMOST ANYWHERE

Panic attacks can be triggered by many different thoughts or experiences and it’s not uncommon to have no idea what triggered your most recent attack. Sometimes just the fact that you’ve had an attack in a specific place (like the produce aisle at Trader Joe’s) can trigger another attack when you are in that setting again.  When people get repeated panic attacks outside of their home this can cause agoraphobia which, in it’s most extreme forms, keep people shut inside their homes for fear of feeling panicked and out of control should they go outside.

PANIC ATTACKS ARE TREATABLE

One of the best things we can do to treat panic attacks is realize that although panic is really uncomfortable, nothing catastrophic is going to happen. In other words, we learn to tolerate the feelings of panic, which then gives panic less and less power over time. One way to do this is to think logically about the worst thing that could actually happen as a result of panicking. At work, the worst thing that could happen is usually that you need to spend some time recovering in the bathroom or by talking to a trusted coworker. At the grocery, the worst thing that could happen is you get so distracted by panicking that you don’t get your shopping done and you have to come back another time. You might have thoughts of humiliating yourself in front of others but realistically nothing seriously embarrassing or awful happens during a panic attack. You just feel uncomfortable.

THEY FEEL CATASTROPHIC (BUT THEY’RE NOT)

Usually the thing that people do to worsen a panic attack is allow themselves to believe that this time something catastrophic really will happen. The more you believe that a panic attack is actually something dangerous the more likely you are to feel more panicky. For some people a mantra like “it’s just a panic attack, it feels bad but I’m safe” can be really helpful to defuse the pattern of panic (and avoid panicking about panic).

PANIC STARTS WITH MISINTERPRETATION

One hypothesis about the origins of panic attacks is that people misinterpret harmless body sensations as being indicators that a panic attack is starting and then panic about the possibility of panicking. Before you know it, you are in a full blown panic attack. For that reason, a therapist will often teach you some basic skills and knowledge and then encourage you to do things that simulate panic. You might be encouraged to spin around (so that you feel dizzy), hold your breath (so that you feel hot and short of breath), or do jumping jacks (to get your heart rate and adrenaline elevated) and have you notice that feeling the symptoms of panic is actually not dangerous like your mind tells you it is.

The bottom line: panic attacks can be caused by lots of different thoughts and situations and panicking feels dreadful. However, panic is never actually dangerous, it’s just uncomfortable, and one of the best treatments for reducing panic over time is to learn to tolerate the feelings that you get during an attack.

If you are someone you know is struggling with panic attacks, reach out and schedule an appointment.

A Roadmap to Wellbeing: What Comprises Mental Health?

Wellbeing is a sustained sense of value in oneself, the world, and life. But when we take a microscope to it, what actually makes up wellbeing? Below are some of the core features of mental health. Not everyone poses each of these attributes, of course. What are some of your strongest abilities? How can you foster these abilities in yourself?

  1. The Capacity to Work – this does not necessarily refer to your ability to hold a 9-to-5 but rather the sense that there is something that you do with your time that is meaningful. This could be a hobby, volunteer work, a job, or caring for a family member. If you don’t have that now, what do you envision it might be?
  2. The Capacity to Love – our ability to have an authentic relationship with another person or to experience devotion towards someone’s wellbeing even if it sometimes comes at a cost to our own.
  3. The Capacity to Play – the enjoyment of actively participating in something fun like playing sports, dancing, singing, or actual play. All mammals play and it is probably an essential part of who we are.
  4. Feeling Safe in a Relationship – as young children some of us learn that the world can be a dangerous place and this understanding can persist into adulthood. We all need another person with whom we can feel truly safe. Research has shown that if we did not feel that way with our parents/families as children the two things that can start to change that are a partner relationship that lasts at least five years or a relationship with a therapist that lasts at least two years.
  5. Self-Efficacy – a sense that you have control over some aspects of your life. You might start determining your level of self-efficacy by asking “how many of the things in my life are happening because I want them to happen?”
  6. Identity – a feeling that you know who you are and can recognize both the great and not-so-great things about you. This is also a sense of comfort in our bodies or “in our own skin.”
  7. Resilience – our ability to make it through difficult experiences (which is something that we have all done).
  8. Self-Esteem – this is not just feeling good about ourselves. It’s a balance between being kind to ourselves but also knowing what our strengths and limitations are. We need to know what’s valuable about ourselves and how we can use those things to move towards our goals.
  9. Values – a sense of moral integrity. We may feel like we have an inner compass that guides us toward what we feel is right, kind, and just. What do you value above all else?
  10. Emotional Flexibility – our ability to not only be okay with but to enjoy the variety of emotions (and thoughts) that we experience. We are creatures that can feel love, fear, anger, sadness, empathy, joy, disgust, etc. We can savor these emotions and embrace them.
  11. Awareness of Others – when we can recognize that other people have lives, thoughts, and intentions separate from our own, we can experience something entirely outside of ourselves.
  12. Balance between Togetherness and Separateness – we can be like porcupines on a cold night: we come together for warmth but then pull apart when we start to prick each other (and then get cold and come together for warmth again). What’s the “sweet spot” for you in between these two opposed ideas?
  13. Feeling Alive – this often comes from a sense of enthusiasm or vitality for living. It can also mean feeling like you are embracing your authentic self and living the life that feels right and genuine for you.
  14. Acceptance – there are always things in life that are painful and unchangeable. That is inevitable. When we can grieve the losses associated with that and begin to move on we encourage an essential part of our mental health.

What struck you on this list? Are there several skills with which you are particularly strong? Which skills would you like to work on strengthening? Remember that wellbeing is, by definition, a process and not a state of being. Therefore, we are all striving towards greater wellbeing together.

Note: this post is based off of the ideas of the brilliant Nancy McWilliams. To see her talk on this subject, go here.

Next time: Building Hope

10 Things to Try to Feel Better Right Now

When we are feeling down or anxious, there are lots of things that we can do in under five minutes to feel a little better. Here’s a starter list. Try writing down the items on this list that speak to you and adding items of your own.

  1. Stretch – Stretching not only brings us back into our bodies and out of our thoughts but also increases circulation bringing fresh blood to our muscles and joints. Stretching is a gentle way to wake ourselves up if we are feeling sluggish.
  2. Make a healthy meal – Weather you cook a full meal or just grab a healthy snack you will be getting nutrients that your body needs. Try eating slowly and in silence and tuning into your eating experience. You will find that tastes are more intense and enjoyable.
  3. Call a friend – Have a five minute conversation with someone who cares about you. You don’t have to talk about your troubles. Notice how it feels to know that you have their support and love.
  4. Go outside – If it’s daytime, try standing with your eyes closed facing the sun for five minutes. If it’s nighttime, spend a few minutes listening to the sounds of your area (everything sounds more peaceful at night). If it’s raining, put on some old clothes and run around in the rain without worrying about what happens to your shoes or hair.
  5. Take a hot or cold shower/bath – To feel soothed try warm water with some kind of scented soap or shampoo. To feel centered try cool water and let it run over your face for several minutes.
  6. Listen to music – Depending on what you need you might try classical (centering and stimulating), rock (exciting and cathartic), jazz (soothing), or oldies (nostalgic).
  7. Feel your feet on the floor – This is a simple way to bring ourselves back into the present if we are feeling sad about the past or worried about the future. Ground your feet and push them into the floor if you need to. Feel the floor supporting you.
  8. Laugh – Find a standup special on Netflix, call your funniest friend, or tell someone the story of the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you.
  9. Visualize something positive – Close your eyes and picture your pet, closest friend, a positive memory, or a peaceful place (anything that makes you feel good). Imagine that person or thing in front of you. Imagine the sounds, smells, and feelings that go along with it. Stay there for a few minutes.
  10. Do a favor for someone – Buy a sandwich for a homeless person, call an elderly family member, donate $10 to your favorite charity, or tell a significant other how much they mean to you. By doing something nice for someone else we not only make their day better but we can focus on someone else instead of ourselves (which can break the cycle of negative thoughts or emotions).

What else helps you feel calm? Put your list somewhere that’s easy to access for when you’re having a bad day.