For some people they can come out of the blue. Or, you may have a pretty clear idea what triggers them. Either way, panic attacks are at best a terrible source of discomfort that can take us out of the flow of things, and at worst can be frightening, debilitating, and stop us in our tracks. 

For those who may not be as clear on the details, let’s review what a panic attack looks and feels like:

A panic attack is experienced as an intense and abrupt surge of fear or anxious discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and includes some but not necessarily all of the following symptoms: 

  • Rapid heart rate, heart pounding in your chest
  • Feeling short of breath or like you’re smothering or choking, hyperventilating (involuntarily rapid breathing)
  • Tightness, pain, or discomfort in the chest
  • Suddenly feeling very warm (a “hot flush”) or feeling suddenly chilled
  • Breaking out in a sweat – may be localized, such as sweaty hands, forehead, or neck
  • Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, faint, or unsteady
  • Numbness or a tingling sensation, often felt in fingers or hands
  • Shaking, trembling
  • Nausea or stomach distress, “butterflies in the stomach” sensation
  • Intense fear of losing control or losing a grip on sanity, fear that something’s dreadfully wrong which could lead to death or a medical emergency
  • Feeling detached or “unreal” – sometimes experienced as a sense of floating out of one’s body, inability to fully sense one’s body, or a sensation of viewing oneself from a distance.

But what is a panic attack?

Panic attacks involve inappropriate or unexpected activation of what’s known as the fight, flight, or freeze response, a physical response we’re all programmed for that’s helped humans survive.

When we sense possible danger or a situation where we might need to be very alert or on guard, our brain initiates physical changes in the body so we can take action if needed. In most situations when this response is activated our body can discharge or absorb this sudden burst of energy and we’re not particularly troubled by feeling the changes that take place because we’ve come to expect them. It may take a moment for us to calm down, but we understand why our body did what it did.

A panic attack is a case of this normal body response happening when it’s not an appropriate or helpful time for it to happen, like an alarm got tripped accidentally. When this occurs, it can feel frightening or overwhelming. If a large bear strolls into in the room, you bet I want a big bump of adrenaline! I’m going to want to do SOMETHING to react. But if there’s no bear, or anything remotely like a bear (a threat) and I’m getting that feeling, and it doesn’t just go away – bad news! 

What your therapy with me might look like

If you’re troubled by panic attacks, you and I would work together on multiple levels, including making sure you understand WHAT is happening, like I’ve started to explain here, having us understand WHY it might be happening (triggers, underlying thought processes), and working on HOW to stop and prevent panic attacks, which can involve things like learning relaxation techniques and tracking and modifying your thoughts surrounding anxiety and feelings of panic. 

I’d also spend time helping you work through ways that you may have started avoiding situations or cues that you’re worried could spark another panic attack. Because that level of anxiety feels so awful we often begin to avoid situations that have been associated with panic attacks. Our tendency is to avoid that which feels frightening or seems dangerous, right?! Panic attacks may have forced you to change your routine, give up things you would like to be able to do, and live in fear that they’ll keep on coming. This limits your choices and actions. 

I want to help you take your life back!  If you’ve been struggling with panic attacks and are fed up with the way they have you on the run, consider scheduling your free initial conversation with me to discuss whether therapy with me might be a good option. 

Call me at 505-431-5058 or email to request a consultation appointment.

A technique to stop or slow down a panic attack

Here’s a quick tip on a breathing technique to try as soon as you sense a panic attack coming on. If you’d like, try practicing this technique now so you have a feel for it next time you think you might need it. 

  • Breathe in and hold it for 10-15 seconds
  • Let that breath out, then breath in again and hold it for another 10-15 seconds
  • Blow that breath out and switch to controlled deep breathing, like this…
  • Breath in through your nose for a quick count of 7.  Make sure to allow the breath to go deeply into your lungs – allow your belly to extend
  • Breath out right away – no need to hold it now. On the out breath count quickly to 11, so it lasts longer than your breath inward. 
  • Continue this pattern of controlled deep breathing until you feel your panic start to subside and your body relax. 

The counting helps regulate the flow of breath with an added benefit of providing a place for your mind to focus.

If it’s hard to breathe through your nose, just do the counting as you breathe in and out of your mouth and on the outward breath push your lips together a bit so you have to exert a little force to blow your breath out slowly.