By Linda K. Laffey, MFT

Your heart is racing.  You are sweating and trembling.  You are gasping for air.  You may feel like you’re dying or going crazy.

When talking about severe anxiety symptoms, panic attack is certainly one of the most, if not the most, severe.  While there are many varied causes of chronic anxiety, and an in-depth approach to understanding and healing those causes would be highly valuable, the purpose of this post is to address the physical symptoms of a panic attack and to gain control over them.  Once you have some confidence that you have the ability to avoid the extreme discomfort that comes with a full-blown panic attack, you can then address the underlying causes of your anxiety with a degree of ease.

The Source of Your Panic Attack

Your panic attack occurs as a result of your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) being thrown off balance, usually by some sort of trigger that causes you to feel ever-increasing levels of anxiety.  Your ANS is made up of two branches—The Sympathetic Branch and The Parasympathetic Branch—which operate together to maintain homeostasis or equilibrium or balance.  They are reciprocal systems—when one is up, the other is down.

The Sympathetic Branch is like the gas pedal in your car, and causes your organs to prepare for action.  It causes your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and stress hormones to go up, while also reducing your saliva production and causing your digestion to weaken.

The Parasympathetic Branch is similar to the brake pedal in your car.  It causes your organs to slow down and rest, and your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and stress hormones to come down.

The Solution

With that understanding, once the Sympathetic Branch of your ANS has been activated, either by anxiety or a full-blown panic attack, the solution becomes to do something to engage the Parasympathetic Branch of your ANS in order to turn on a relaxation response.

One of the best ways to do that is with deep breathing.  It may sound simple, but it is a proven, hugely powerful way to control anxiety and panic, and to replace them with calm.

One deep breathing exercise I recommend is called Square Breathing, and goes like this:  Take in a deep breath through your nose to the slow count of 4; hold for a slow count of 4; let it out through your mouth to the slow count of 4; and hold for a slow count of 4.  4;4;4;4 = Square Breathing.  Repeat this pattern again and again for a minimum of 5 minutes, and work up to 20 minutes, at least 3 times per day.  This will cause you to relax, and you cannot physically be relaxed and anxious at the same time.  Inducing this kind of consistent, controlled, deep breathing can stop a panic attack dead in its tracks, and a daily practice of this exercise can help prevent future panic attacks from ever threatening you again.  It takes discipline and persistence, but the results of feeling calmly in control are undeniable.

There are many ways of dealing with anxiety and panic attacks, and one of them is outlined here.  If you would like to discuss your situation and how we might work together to make your life better, I look forward to hearing from you.

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