Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night having a full-blown panic attack?
You are not alone. Panic attacks are surprisingly common. The latest research has shown that at least one-third of us will experience a panic attack at some point in our lives.
While symptoms vary from person to person, they can include a pounding heart, shortness of breath, light-headedness, sweating, trembling, nausea, tingling or numbness in the fingers and toes, and an overwhelming sense of impending doom.
For many people, these alarming sensations, which can mimic a heart attack or other serious medical condition, are accompanied by a conviction that you are in serious danger. But you are not in danger. Instead, panic attacks are a manifestation of the brain and body being out of sync. It’s just a normal physiological fear response happening at a totally inappropriate time.
So, how can we hit the brakes on panic attacks?
The good news is that panic attacks usually peak and subsides within 10 or 15 minutes.
So there is a couple of solid techniques that can help you ride them out.
Chief among those is recognizing your experience is just a panic attack and not a more serious medical crisis and then gently reminding yourself that there’s nothing physically unsafe happening. Panic always pass and focusing on this belief can alleviate the symptoms. This method takes practice, but the more you do it, the better you get at doing it.
The other major technique is focussing on your breath. Most people breathe, on average, about 12 to 20 breaths a minute. But when you’re hyperventilating you’re easily doubling that. Therefore you should try to gradually slow your breathing to between 5 and 10 breaths per minute and aiming to make your exhales longer than your inhales. This deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body which runs through regions including the digestive system and diaphragm and feeds directly into the brainstem’s nucleus of the solitary tract. The vagus nerve carries signals and sensory information to and from the brain and regulates functions including heart rate, breathing rate, and digestion.
Counselling can help too. Petersgate counsellors have found that cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is designed to gradually help you modify your behavioral responses to life events, can strengthen the neural connections between the frontal cortex and the amygdala. This makes panic sufferers more adept at talking themselves down off the ledge.
Ultimately, panic attacks are just fear of fear. So if you are no longer afraid, it passes.