Thursday, May 15, 2014

Gaining Control of Panic

Panic is a physiological reaction which can be triggered by something external to you but more often it is triggered by negative and fearful thoughts. Often you may not be able to identify the exact trigger as the anxiety and panic quickly overwhelm you.
The initial physiological reactions such as heart beating faster, shortness of breath, shaking, tight chest, nausea or unsettled stomach, become more intense as your thoughts immediately focus on these feelings with ‘oh no I am going to have a panic attack’, you can very quickly feel out of control of your own body’s reactions, your emotions and your thoughts.
Understanding the panic reaction is an important first step in regaining control. Firstly it is important to realise that anxiety and panic are a temporary state and the range of physical reactions can be reversed, quickly, by the use of some very simple techniques. These techniques should be practiced initially at times when you are not anxious to ensure that you are so familiar with the technique, you can use it easily when you become anxious or begin to panic.

Slow and deep breaths
What normally happens when we begin to experience anxiety is that our breathing becomes fast and the breaths short, it may seem almost as if you are panting or gasping for breath. This pattern of breathing has an effect on other parts of our body, including an increase in heart rate. In the clinic setting I use a bio-feedback device which clearly demonstrates the rapid impact of deliberately changing the breathing pattern, the heart rate becomes more regular after only two or three deep breaths. Practice slow and deep breaths throughout the day, take two or three and then allow your breathing to return to a normal and natural rhythm. Whenever you notice even minor symptoms of anxiety or you notice those negative and fearful thoughts creeping in, just repeat this deep breathing practice. It also helps to take your attention away from your thoughts by focusing on each breath, notice how it feels for the air to enter your nostrils and flow down through your body and similarly for the exhale.

Focus on the here and now
The negative and fearful thoughts that usually accompany anxiety and panic, tend to be related to either the past or the future or both. You may dwell on unpleasant and painful experiences from the past and you may be fearful of bad things ahead. More specifically. if you have previously experienced panic, you will fear being overwhelmed by anxiety especially if you are in a public place. It is this fear that most often exacerbates and accelerates the severe anxiety symptoms. You can counteract this negative past/future thinking by focusing on what is actually present in the here and now, what is in your physical environment rather than in your head. By making use of your senses, notice where you are, notice your feet on the floor or how your body feels in contact with the chair, look closely at something around you, notice the detail and the colours, listen to the range of sounds in the room and go wider to what you can hear outside the room. Practice being mindful in this way throughout your day, you will be amazed at how it interrupts and changes your thoughts.

Rational and positive thinking
You can also manage the thoughts by challenging them, taking a different view or perspective. Again this can be easier said than done when you are in the midst of a panic attack but by practicing this regularly, when you are not anxious, it will become more natural when you most need it. Telling yourself that the anxiety will pass, that you have techniques to control the panic, focus on positive events ahead or positive experiences from the past, telling yourself things wont be that bad and that things usually work out.

You might find that just one of these strategies suits you and works for you or you may use all three in combination. The important thing is that you understand the rationale for the approach you are using so that you can truly believe that you are able to gain control of panic.
Keeping a written record for yourself can help you to see how you are progressing in your practice and by seeing the impact the techniques have on your emotional state, you will begin to feel more confident that you have control over your own reactions.

For more information contact:
Shona Lowes
Equilibria Psychology Services

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