Panic attacks – breaking the cycle

Panic attacks and hypnoptherapy

Panic attacks can be a terrifying experience. Hypnotherapy and some simple exercises can give you the tools to take back control and stop these cycles. 

What are panic attacks?

According to the NHS a panick attack is:

When your body experiences a rush of intense mental and physical symptoms. It can come on very quickly and for no apparent reason.

While it is entirely normal to experience anxiety in certain situations and to feel a sudden surge of panic (e.g. narrowly missing gong into the back of a car or experiencing a particularly bumpy flight) panic attacks are very different.

Panic attacks are experiences that occur usually due to stressful situations and seem to come somewhat out of the blue. They can last somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes. Panic attacks are an exaggerated response of your fight or flight sympathetic nervous system which can create strong and exaggerated psychological and physiological feelings of apprehension, fear and terror.

IMPORTANT: even though panic attacks can be terrifying - nothing awful will happen. They will pass and although being unpleasant they are not dangerous.

What do panic attacks feel like?
  • Physically – shortness of breath, palpitations, heart rate can double, chest discomfort, sweating, dizziness/fainting, nausea, trembling and tingling.
  • Behaviourally – desire to escape, sit down, become snappy, avoid going to places where you think you will panic, fear exerting yourself, fear of being on your own.
  • Emotionally – a rush of frightening thoughts, feeling of loosing control, fear of making a fool of yourself, a sense of danger to your health (worry of a heart attack or stroke), catastrophising that the worst is going to happen.
Why do panic attacks happen?

You might have heard of your fight, flight or freeze response. This autonomic nervous system response was designed to help our hunter gatherer ancestors survive. It would ready their bodies to chase down lunch or escape and avoid becoming a tasty snack. Today we no longer have vicious toothy monsters but our stressful lifestyles and powerful imaginations can create the same chemicals. Our adrenal glands pump adrenaline  through our blood stream creating a cascade of reactions. If you suffer from panic attacks you will no doubt recognise these reactions as the symptoms of an attack:

Symptom

Fight/flight/freeze explanation

Butterflies in your stomach

Blood is diverted away from the stomach to the major muscles ready for action.

Racing heart

The heart beats faster to serve the muscles with oxygen and remove metabolites and waste products from anticipated exertion

Nausea and Diorreah

Blood is diverted away from stomach and the  contents are emptied so not to take up valuable space leaving you lighter to run

Sweating

Your body is becoming more efficient at cooling itself down ready for possibly life saving movement

Shaking

Your body is surging blood into your arms and legs preparing them for fight or flight

For more on stress, anxiety and fight or flight you might like to read this post

The spiral of panic attacks

Anxiety can quickly spiral up into a full blown panic attack as fight or flight hijacks our rational mind. The seed may be planted from a thought or an external trigger such as being in a crowded room which then lights the touch paper and off we go again as if the toothy monster is hot on our tail. The symptoms can then be rationalised as something more serious which then creates more anxiety and hence more symptoms. The cycle becomes self fulfilling as it spirals into full blown fight or flight panic attacks.

Breathing

When we experience panic attacks our breathing speeds up and becomes shallower. Historically we wanted to get more oxygen in and carbon dioxide out as we prepared to do battle. As our breathing rate speeds up, more carbon dioxide is exhaled and our blood becomes more alkaline. A series of physiological changes then occur in our muscles and nerves. Again you might recognise some of the symptoms:

  • dizziness
  • stomach upsets
  • cramps
  • weakness
  • increased sensitivity to pain

As the smooth muscle of our blood vessels constrict, our heart has to beats harder. This results in our blood pressure rising and we can get tingling and numbness around our body. It is not uncommon for people to feel like they are having a heart attack – which then creates more anxiety.

The good news is that all of these symptoms are a normal (if some what exaggerated) response to a thought of danger and although unpleasant they will pass.

How to break the 'habit' of panic attacks

As mentioned above panic attacks can become a self fuelling spiral. The more they happen the more the ‘habit’ becomes ingrained and the easier it is to trigger them. It is a little like learning a new skill – the more you practice the better you get.  In order to break the ‘habit’ It is important to set up road blocks and learn new habits. In this last section I will equipped you with a number of ways to step in and calm things down. Here are my 7 favourite road blocks, which when you use them regularly will literally rewire your brain.

(I will write another article on self hypnosis and hypnotherapy for panic attacks which is incredibly powerful too).

1. Breathing
fluorescent lights saying and breathe for panic attacks

Slow relaxed breathing actually triggers our rest and relax nervous system, other wise known as our ‘Parasympathetic nervous system’. As soon as you notice the signs of anxiety, just become aware of your breathing and start to slow it down, breathing in through your nose and out gently through your mouth. As your rest and digest nervous system is activated more on the out breath begin to extend your exhalation aiming eventually for a count of 7 in and 11 out.

2. Biateral hemispheric stimulation
using a tennis ball for panic attacks

This one is easy and so effective

  • When you get a sense that anxiety is beginning to spiral and panic attacks are on the horizon – pause. Notice where your level of anxiety on a scale out of 1to10
  • Simply pass a ball or water bottle backwards and forwards across your midline using your hands
  • The reason this works is because anxiety predominantly occurs in one side of your brain, while passing the ball or bottle involves both the left and right hemispheres. This means that those thoughts are interrupted and you get a bit of a reboot as the anxiety pattern is disrupted
  • After less than a minute you get a re-balancing
  • Re-check on a scale of 1-10 how far it has dropped and repeat if necessary
3. Expanding your peripheral vision
man widening peripheral vision for panic attacks

When we experience panic attacks we get tunnel vision as we prepare for fight or flight. By expanding our peripheral vision out we can create stillness in our body and mind and our internal dialogue can no longer hold on.

  • Find a focal point any point.
  • Keep your eyes on the point of focus and begin to become aware of all the space around it.
  • Begin to expand your awareness to take in the space all the way above it and the space below it.
  • Expand your peripheral vision so you become more aware of the space to either side.
  • Expanding your peripheral vision even more as if you could reach the edges of your peripheral field  as if you could reach for the space behind you.
4. Release physical and emotional tension
sitting on a bench and relaxing for panic attacks

Similar to the way it is nearly impossible to be upset while you are laughing, it also hard to be in a state of fight or flight anxiety while you are relaxed. The more relaxed you are the faster you will eliminate the stress hormones that circulate around your body preparing you for action. In hypnotherapy we can set up a ‘calm’ anchor which will help you trigger that relaxation response but you can practice something similar by remembering a calming event such as a holiday or yoga class as vividly as possible. As your breathing begins to slow the panic attacks begin to evaporate.

5. Distracting the mind
counting numbers for panic attacks

Rather than focusing on the panic attacks and the associated symptoms in your body (which can cause more anxiety) you can do something that distracts your mind to outside of your body. Here are just a few examples:

  • Count back from 799 subtracting 4 then 7 alternatively until you reach 1
  • Counting objects that are repetitive such as bricks or squares in graph paper
  • Looking forward past the panic event at future positive events or even mundane chores which are on your to do list
  • Juggling
6. Work on reducing anxiety and base line stress levels
a selection of healthy foods that reduce panic attacks

Working on your anxiety and stress management in advance creates more wiggle room in the system to deal with any triggers that should occur:

  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes
  • Sleep well
  • Eat a balanced and nutrition diet
  • Exercise (this is basically creating a 21st century version of the flight and fight response to burn up the stress hormones that arena longer needed from a hunter gatherer perspective)
  • Meditation/mindfulness/yoga/Tai Qui – all help with our parasympathetic nervous system activation
  • Figure out your stressors and either avoid them or work on them
7. Work on thoughts and beliefs
a child who is thinking to combat panic attacks

Take charge of your thoughts instead of letting them control you and your body’s responses. It is ok to accept what is going on as an unpleasant experience that will pass.

Say to yourself:

“STOP - I’m having a panic attack and I feel awful but nothing bad will happen. It's a normal part of my body’s survival mechanism and I have tools to deal with it. These panic attacks will pass.”

I hope you enjoyed this blog post. Please feel free to share it, and if I can help in any way at all, please do get it touch and lets chat.

Best wishes Dan

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Daniel Baines
Daniel Baines

Daniel Baines is an Osteopath, Hypnotherapist and movement coach who is intrigued by all things mind and body.