According to a survey of over 1,000 Americans conducted by the personal development and wellness provider All Points North Lodge sent to Well+Good, a third of respondents reported having a panic attack during the pandemic. One in three—that's pretty startling. "Anytime we're in situations that are highly stressful—like the middle of a pandemic—it can activate a number of underlying issues," says Lana Seiler, MSW, LCSW, the associate director of clinical operations at All Points North Lodge.
Seiler explains that a panic attack is an intense surge of fear. "Often, it feels like you're having a heart attack," she says. "They're very real and terrifying." The most common symptoms are shortness of breath, feeling pain in your chest, tingling or numbness, and sweating, she adds.
While the symptoms of a panic attack are very similar to that of an anxiety attack, Seiler says the two are different in terms of what causes them to happen. "An anxiety attack tends to happen because of a specific stressful situation, like giving a presentation or a social event. But panic attacks can seemingly come out of nowhere," she says. Seiler explains that, often, panic attacks are the body's way of physically signaling that the amount of stress someone is enduring is too high, and that often, people are living in a more stressed-out state than they even realize. "It's your body's way of telling you that you need to take care of yourself," she says.
Because of this, Seiler emphasizes that the main way to prevent panic attacks from happening is to manage the stress and anxiety in your life. This is where coping mechanisms like self-care practices, eating nutrient-rich foods, regular movement, and, sometimes, therapy come in. Is this always easy? No. But she says it's the best defense against reaching the point where your body demands your attention in such a drastic way.
If you do experience a panic attack, identifying it as such is what's most important, Seiler explains. Since the symptoms do very closely resemble that of a heart attack, she says it's important to call 911 or get to a hospital if you aren't sure what exactly is going on with you. This is crucial, she says. Once you've confirmed that you're having is a panic attack—perhaps you've had them in the past so you can recognize it when it happens—she has some more tips on working through it.
First, take deep breaths to slow your breathing. "When the nervous system is activated, it causes us to breath faster, so breathing slower will help deactivate it," she says. "This sends the message to our body that we're not actually in danger." Try taking a deep inhale and holding it for seven seconds before exhaling, and then waiting seven more seconds before inhaling again, she suggests. "Something else that can help is doing gentle stretches or movements," Seiler says. "This helps engage the body in a way that's calming, which can also help you get out of that fight-or-flight mode."
While you're doing your deep breathing and stretching, remind yourself that everything is okay, you are fine, and what you are experiencing will pass, Seiler advises. "When a panic attack happens, it can feel like it's going to last forever, but it won't and ultimately you will be okay, so it's important to remind yourself of that," she says.
These are all actions that can help in the moment, but Seiler emphasizes that addressing the underlying causes of the stress and anxiety in your life are vital; otherwise, you'll likely have another panic attack in the future—and no one wants that. Managing panic attacks requires action that's both in-the-moment and ongoing, so unfortunately, there's no shortcuts here.
We can't control what's going on in the world—certainly not the pandemic. But we can control how we take care of ourselves in the midst of it. Panic attacks are just another reminder of how important that is.
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