Stop Having Panic Attacks: Turning Away from Suffering towards Acceptance
You may not like the title of this piece. You may be thinking, ‘Hell no, I’m not accepting my panic attacks, I want rid of them!’
And you’d be right. Who wouldn’t want to be rid of them, to no-longer endure their agony? They are, after all, pretty dreadful. Let’s be honest about it, let’s not pretend otherwise, they are just plain awful. Horrible, agonizing moments in our lives that we could do without, period.
I’m not telling you this from the psychologist’s chair, or from descriptive accounts in self-help books, I’m telling you this from the point of view of a fellow ... well, a fellow what? Sufferer? Is that the right word? Does that sound right to you? Do we ‘suffer’ from panic attacks?
My dictionary tells me that to ‘suffer’ is to endure or experience something painful or damaging in some way. So, yes, at first glance ‘suffer’ seems about right. But here’s the thing, to tell yourself that you suffer from panic attacks is actually part of the problem.
Having not Suffering Panic
I’ve found it’s much more helpful to say that I have panic attacks. This is not a cheap semantic trick, as it gets to the heart of why we find it so hard to deal with panic and anxiety when it begins to take grip.
The most important journey I have taken in learning how to deal with my panic attacks is in accepting them. But accepting them does not come naturally or easily. None of us want to ‘suffer’ anything, so we reject the feelings of panic as they arise both via how we think about them and in our physical responses. In doing so we push back, we fight back. ‘No, not now!’ ‘Go away!’ ‘Not this again!’ ‘Oh no, I can’t let this happen’ etc. I’ve been there, perhaps you have too?
But what happens when we do this, when we fight back against panic and anxiety? Exactly what the panic wants — you’ve triggered your fight-or-flight response even more than when the anxiety started. You’ve actually fed the panic. That Grizzly that was on the horizon before you starting fighting your feelings, is now breathing down your neck.
To have something, however, is very different. Having is open to all sorts of interpretations which can be good, really good, great even! At its most fundamental level, to assert that you have panic attacks changes your relationship to them. When you suffer them, they are in control of you. To say that you have them, is to change this dynamic. By saying that you have them, you are asserting ownership over them. In doing so, you are beginning the journey towards accepting them. You are clearly and boldly stating, ‘my name is X and I have panic attacks’. This puts you back in charge.
Granted, it’s not an easy thing to admit to yourself, but it’s a necessary and essential step. If you can accept that you are someone who, from time to time, suffers from panic and anxiety you are well on your way to overcoming your panic. By accepting this about yourself you will gradually find that you no-longer fight against panic and anxiety, a battle which you will not win anyway.
It’s important that this acceptance comes with loving kindness for yourself. Don’t be hard on yourself in the process of accepting. Panic and anxiety does not define who you are in any way. Rather, be compassionate with yourself in this gradual process of acceptance.
And, while you accept the fact that you are someone who has panic attacks, don’t lose sight of the fact that you have spent the absolutely overwhelming majority of your life not having them. Even in the midst of a period in your life where you are having panic attacks, it’s important to put them into perspective. They really are a tiny blip of time in your life.
Taking Back Control
By being accepting you are changing the story you tell yourself about your panic and anxiety. Consider for a moment what kind of story you tell yourself when you feel the onset of panic. If you respond to the cues that you have associated with a panic attack by thinking ‘Oh no, here it comes, I’m feeling clammy and dizzy, I’m about to suffer a panic attack!’ — chances are you’ll have one. But this can, and does change, if you narrate your thoughts differently.
And remember, whatever thoughts you have in these moments are pure fiction, they are not the truth, they are simply a story you are narrating to yourself about what you think you are, or are about, to experience. This realization can be enormously liberating, it certainly has been for me. I’ve heard the thoughts that arrive in our heads described as propaganda — they are simply what we choose to think at any given moment — they are, of course, highly selective and can be entirely misleading.
With this in mind, now imagine feeling those first signs in your body that you associate with panic and changing the voice in your head to think, ‘OK, here comes something that feels like panic and I accept it for what it is — just some thoughts I am having’.
Rather than your thinking hurrying you down the familiar path to panic, you are now presented with opportunities to think differently. Rather than fighting, you are accepting and, importantly, acknowledging. You are acknowledging the thoughts, seeing them for what they are — propaganda. Just one set of thoughts among the myriad number of thoughts you will have during your day. One set of thoughts which are not a representation of your reality.
To be able to acknowledge panicked thoughts as fleeting fictions, to narrate them differently, you need to be able to break the downward spiral of thoughts that often result in panic attacks. I guess you know what I mean here, the way that negative thoughts about panic start as a small snowball at the top of the mountain that rapidly gathers more and more negative thoughts. And, before you know it, that snowball is an avalanche.
For me, this was, and sometimes (but very rarely) still is, the hardest challenge. But it is one which can be overcome through practice and compassion for yourself. There are a number of things you can do to stop these cascading thoughts.
· Some people like to visualize their thoughts as clouds. You could try this and see if it works for you. If the thought arises that you are about to panic, imagine the thought as a cloud and watch it get gently blown by the wind to be replaced by another thought.
· I’ve heard that having an elastic band around your wrist can help. When you start to feel the gathering of negative panicky thoughts, give yourself a little sting on the wrist by snapping the band onto your skin. This can literally snap you out of your negative thoughts.
· Breathe into and with your thoughts. I’ve found this can work, but it is something I’ve had to learn over time. When the negative thoughts come, take some slow and deep breaths into your abdomen, rather than into your chest, where breaths tend to be shallower. It helps me to close my eyes too, although that it not always possible. As few as four of five long breaths can stop the snowball before it begins it’s descent.
· One technique that works for me is called POA — Pause, Observe and Allow. When the anxious thoughts come, pause for a second, have a look at these thoughts and see them for what they are, simply thoughts, not reality. And then, allow them to pass you by.
· Some people have learnt to play with their panic by egging it on to do its worst. At first glance this seems a foolish thing to do, but it really can work. By egging it on, you are no longer fighting it, you are wholeheartedly accepting it and in doing so you’ll find that it completely loses its power over you.
All of these techniques are essentially about two things, about being present in the moment, and about accepting. By being present in the moment, you are letting go of the fantasy story you are telling yourself about the panic attack. By being in the moment you stop these thoughts from gathering and recognize them for what they are — just thoughts, no more, no less.
In doing this you are also accepting. Accepting who you are and how you choose to experience the world via the thoughts that you choose to narrate your reality.
You Can Do It
I wish you luck and send you compassion on your journey to overcome panic and anxiety. It can be a long and tricky path, but it’s one you can take, I’m sure of that.