Nope, I’m not a doctor or psychologist. But I know the pain and stress of anxiety attacks, have had a bit of training in how to deal with them and how to help others deal with them. Problem is, too many people don’t want to hear anything during their panic attack that might help them; they are only interested in an expensive and largely useless trip to the emergency room. The most helpful thing an emergency room can do for the average person having a panic attack (when you know that’s what is happening to you and it’s not your first time) is make them sit and WAIT. Most often people calm down in the waiting room because they are distracted by the real emergencies, and they also have a lot of time to think about things other than if they are going to die – because hey, you are already in the hospital so if you keel over you are in a place where you might move up in the triage formula! There are legit emergencies happening there – your best course of action is to understand why your symptoms are happening and realize you need to formulate healthy ways to treat yourself. Oh, and see your regular doctor during normal hours as soon as possible to talk about if therapy and/or medication might be helpful to you as well.
Your heart is racing:
Rapid heartbeat and palpitations during a panic attack are generally not dangerous (if they are not part of a pre-diagnosed heart condition). A person’s healthy heart can beat up to 200 beats per minute for days or even weeks without sustaining any damage. Yes, it can be uncomfortable and may interfere with sleeping. Do not add to your stress during this time with caffeine or extra sugar. If your heart begins to race (most common symptom), acknowledge it and allow it to do so, but don’t let it become your focus.
Your breathing is labored:
Under stress, your neck and chest muscles are tightening and reducing your respiratory capacity. This sensation will lead to a sudden fear that you are going to suffocate. There is nothing wrong with your throat or lungs, and this will pass, although it is understandably scary.
You are feeling dizzy:
The muscle tension in your body is also affecting the semicircular canal system in your ears, which is the system that helps regulate your balance. Also, you may be trying to breathe more rapidly which actually reduces your blood circulation, and that might be making you lightheaded. Slow, deep breaths from the abdomen (sometimes called “belly breathing”) will help relieve these feelings.
You are feeling detached or “out of it”:
That arterial restriction of blood flow to the brain due to rapid breathing might be making you feel disoriented or detached from the world around you. You aren’t going crazy. As your body starts to relax with whatever method works for you (exercise, meditation, belly breathing, distracting activities, music, etc…) this will pass.
You think you are going to faint and/or your fingers are numb:
That dizzy, lightheaded, detached feeling strikes again! You are breathing too rapidly and hyperventilating, which means the blood flow to your brain and extremities is slightly reduced. This situation isn’t dangerous unless you are trying to do something tricky like walk the stairs and you fall, so lie down and get comfortable while you practice taking long, SLOW, deep breaths from your lower abdomen.
Some panic attacks are over in minutes while some last for days. Sometimes you know what causes the anxiety, and sometimes it may seem to just happen. The important thing is to acknowledge what is happening without letting it control you. Try different methods of healthy stress relief to see which ones work for you, and never doubt how strong you are!