Have you ever felt a creeping sense of unease and dread? You know, the kind that weighs on your chest and vibrates throughout your entire body? The kind of feelings of panic that overwhelm your entire nervous system and make it hard to catch your breath? Sounds like you may have experienced a panic attack.
Panic attacks can happen to anyone, in any place. In fact, it’s estimated that about 11% of people experience a panic attack in any given year. But why do so many people experience panic attacks?
While there isn’t one, definitive answer, contributing factors like other mental health conditions, substance abuse, and traumatic life experiences may contribute.
What Do Panic Attacks Feel Like?
Not all panic attacks look like what we see in popular media. There isn’t always a visible, massive breakdown with screaming and tears. In fact, you might not be able to see any outward changes at all.
While it might feel like a heart attack because your chest is tight and it feels like you can’t breathe, don’t worry. These and other symptoms are normal.
Other common physical symptoms of panic attacks can include feeling faint, trembling or shaky limbs, dizziness, and overall, feeling disconnected from your body when you’re experiencing this.
Panic attacks, essentially, are your nervous system revving up your body to face danger. But the thing is, you aren’t in any immediate peril. Instead of these physical symptoms helping you escape danger, they truthfully feel unbearable.
So, if you find yourself feeling like everything is spinning and crumbling around you, finding calm and centering yourself is essential. And a great way to get to that state is to focus on your breathing.
Breathing Exercises for Dealing with Panic Attacks
Being told to just breathe when you’re experiencing a panic attack is easier said than done. So we asked the experts about different breathing exercises they recommend to calm your panic and anxiety and help bring you back to center.
“In a heightened state, like a panic or anxiety attack, use a breathing technique with a longer ‘out breath’ or exhale,” says Amy DeBlase, LMHC, PMH-C. “The longer exhale activates our ‘rest and digest’ system and encourages our ‘fight or flight system (sympathetic) to deactivate and enhance calm.
Just exhale fully through your mouth until all your breath is out and follow with an inhale. Remember, panic attacks are time limited. So, pairing a breathing practice with some helpful internal reminders will help bring you out of your panicked state,” she said.
The 4:7 Technique
Tamar Tenenbaum, LMSW, shares the quickest and easiest way to do this is through 4:7 breathing. “This is when you breathe in through your nose for four seconds and exhale for seven seconds through your mouth. Regardless of how long the inhale is, the most important part is that the exhale is longer than your inhale. Practicing this regularly helps you understand what it feels like to self-regulate,” she shared. Similar to the 4-7-8 technique, the real focus is on exhaling and repeating the process until your panic has subsided.
The Box Breathing Technique
This breathing technique follows the rule of fours. Box breathing when you have a panic attack is easy to visualize. Picture a square. Think of yourself as starting in one corner and breathing in four seconds. Once you’ve made it to the next corner, go ahead and hold that breath in for another four seconds. Repeat the process while you go to the next corner, exhaling for four seconds, and again, hold for another four. If imagining a square or box doesn’t work for you, don’t worry, as long as you remember to follow that rule of fours.
Belly Breathing Technique
Zainah Ben Essa, MHC-LP, recommends that clients practice deep belly breathing. “Oftentimes, we breathe from our chest, which creates a very shallow breath, keeping our bodies in a ‘fight or flight’ state. To get to a state of calm, especially when experiencing a panic attack, try visualizing your breath. See it moving from outside of you, down your breathing pathways, into the deepest parts of your stomach, and allow the breath to stay there before exhaling.”
Regardless of what breathing technique you choose, learning how to re-center yourself is most important. Panic attacks happen, but they don’t have to control your life or ruin your entire day.
Our therapists here at Let’s Talk Psychological Wellness are committed to helping you effectively manage your panic and anxiety so you can live a content and fulfilled life. Learn strategies to help you control your anxiety and enjoy your life. Call, text, or email us.