So You Had a Panic Attack...

The unexpected side effect and how to make sure one never happens again.

By: Noah Lehava

It’s as unexpected as Cameron Diaz and Benji Madden; as unavoidable as a Trump tweet; and as intense and ongoing as the contouring trend. But worse—because it’s a panic attack. And if the things that lead to you having one in the first place weren’t freaking scary enough, experiencing one is straight up B-A-N-A-N-A-S. And the aftereffect could be just as damaging. So to make sure one doesn’t happen again (or if you’ve never experienced one but feel like you’re on the verge), we asked Dr. Samantha Boardman of Positive Prescription to outline a few things you can do to calm down in the moment, and how to never, ever have another episode.

 

How to Know If You’re Having One

“Panic attacks are abrupt surges of intense dread or discomfort that are not caused by a medication, substance abuse, or some other underlying medical condition. They typically occur out of the blue and are accompanied by palpitations, sweating, trembling, and shortness of breath. Symptoms may include nausea, light-headedness, tingling sensations, and a fear of dying. A panic attack can easily be confused with a heart attack. Thankfully, they don’t last for more than a few minutes, but for the person having a panic attack, those minutes can feel like an eternity.” 

 

What You Need to Do ASAP

“Splash some cold water on your face and breathe deeply. Both can help mitigate the stress response.”

 

The Unexpected Side Effect

“People who suffer from panic disorder often go out of their way to avoid having another panic attack. For example, if someone has a panic attack on the subway, they may develop a fear of subways and start avoiding them altogether. The fear can be incapacitating and, in extreme cases, they might refuse to leave the house. The important thing is not to allow panic attacks to hijack your life, and the good news is that there are a number of effective treatments.”

 

Ways to Avoid Another One

“Therapy and lifestyle changes can make a big difference. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and relaxation techniques are effective treatment strategies. In CBT, patients learn about the physiology underlying panic attacks and to identify and challenge beliefs that cause anxiety in the first place. Patients learn to avoid generalizations and to think more flexibly. For example, a patient might think, 'Everyone will think I am a freak if they see me have a panic attack.' CBT will help the patient refrain from jumping to conclusions and to consider other possibilities—that others will want to help, that there is nothing 'freakish' about panic attacks and so on.

"Cutting down on caffeine, getting enough sleep, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and engaging in regular exercise can also help minimize panic attacks. Caffeine is a stimulant and can induce feelings of nervousness and irritability, thereby triggering a panic attack. Keep in mind that reducing caffeine isn’t just about avoiding coffee—soda, tea and chocolate can also contain caffeine. Having a martini or any other alcoholic beverage may be tempting for those who suffer from panic attacks because the alcohol may initially induce a sense of calm but can then trigger a panic attack as the effect wears off.

"Meditation and visualization techniques are helpful strategies for many who suffer from panic attacks. I have patients that swear by the app Headspace.

"Physical activity is a must. It can reduce the frequency and duration of a panic attack. A recent study showed a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms in exercisers as compared to non-exercisers.

“Medication may be indicated in some circumstances. A doctor can help you decide the best plan of attack for your panic attacks.”

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