How to Stop a Panic Attack
I have a fear of falling.
It’s not your typical fear of heights or a symptom of vertigo. It’s a fear of falling straight through the floor—even solid ground on occasion. It’s not constant, it doesn’t happen everywhere, and it usually takes me by surprise.
I stand in my kitchen. It’s there.
I park in my driveway. It’s there.
I visit my family. It’s there.
It’s irrational, bizarre even. Most times I can reason it away, but there are some instances that rattle me, and compel me to swiftly change rooms or locations.
The last time this fear overtook me, I was in a pop-up camper. A small, familiar space reserved for rest and relaxation. Am I wary of those small metal poles holding up the beds? Absolutely, a hundred percent. I mean, how much weight can those things really support? I’m skeptical, but when the fear set in I wasn’t near either of the beds. I was standing in the middle of the camper.
The day was cold but my heart raced, my hands sweat, and I felt dizzy. The kind of dizzy you feel when you’re overheated. Then nausea set in. As I sat down to take a few deep breaths, I knew.
I was having a panic attack.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is defined as a sudden episode of intense fear or anxiety and physical symptoms, based on a perceived threat rather than imminent danger.
My perceived threat was that the floor I was standing on would suddenly give way and drag me under.
This fear is not new. I surmise the events of September 11, 2001 were the catalysts. I don’t recall experiencing this particular type of fear prior to the tragedies of that day. I was working on the 21st floor of the Black Rock building on West 52nd Street. I watched in disbelief and horror from a small television screen in my CEO’s office. I was 22 years old.
I was one of the lucky ones. I was never in harms way, unlike far too many others. I walked over the 59th Street bridge to get home. I watched plumes of pale gray smoke hang mournfully over lower Manhattan.
I will never forget that day.
Soon after, movement and vibrations in the floor made me uneasy. I felt uncomfortable in certain places—places that had always felt safe.
Is it because this unspeakable tragedy happened on such a beautiful day? Is it this juxtaposition that keeps me on edge even today? Do I subconsciously anticipate a negative to every positive?
I’ve been living in my home for nearly 14 years. It has always felt safe, sturdy and stable. Until shortly after we made a few upgrades. I’m not a civil or structural engineer. I have no idea how floor load capacity works or why some walls are load-bearing and others aren’t. But I wish I did.
The fear is in my kitchen. But not all the time. It lingers at night or when it’s cluttered. The fear is in my bathroom. But not all the time. It surprises me after I’ve been away from home for an overnight trip or vacation. The fear is in my driveway. But not all the time. It’s there when the sun is not.
Has the pandemic fanned the flames of my irrational fear? Has my fear intensified as a result of too much time at home, consuming news, and doom scrolling social media?
My heart is racing. My hands are clammy. I’m dizzy.
Seven Ways to Stop a Panic Attack
According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately 11 percent of Americans experience panic attacks. Panic attacks can be scary and may happen quickly. Here are 7 things that may help alleviate symptoms of a panic attack:
Take deep breaths Deep breathing can reduce symptoms of panic during an attack. Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a second, and then breathe out for a count of four. Repeat as needed.
Close your eyes If you feel overwhelmed or overstimulated try closing your eyes. This can block out extra stimuli and make it easier to focus on your breathing.
Practice mindfulness Focus on the present moment. Panic attacks can cause a feeling of detachment or separation from reality, this can ground you and counteract your attack as it’s approaching or actually happening.
Focus on something Focus your mind on a particular object. Describe its patterns, color, shapes, and size to yourself. Focus all of your energy on this object to help panic symptoms subside.
Visualize your happy place Picture yourself in your happy place, and engage each of your 5 senses as much as possible. Imagine digging your toes into the warm sand, or smelling the sharp scent of pine trees. Your happy place should be quiet, calm, and relaxing.
Move your body Low impact physical activities, like walking or swimming, help increase endorphins, which are your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters.
Repeat your mantra Repeating a a calming phrase can be relaxing and reassuring. It can also give you something to focus on instead of the panic attack.
Panic attacks can be extremely unsettling. Though they’re not physically harmful, they can take a toll on your mental health and keep you from doing the things you love.
If you think you’ve experienced a panic attack, don’t be embarrassed. Talk to a doctor or therapist. They can help you overcome the fears and anxieties that trigger your attacks.