Helen Cox shares tips for managing panic attacks.

Sometimes in life, and most definitely in campaigning and social activism, things can get a little bit hectic and stress can creep in where its is most definitely not needed! For some people, symptoms of stress can appear very quickly and quite unexpectedly in the form of hyperventilation and panic attacks.

This is a perfectly normal and expected result of a prolonged inability to utilise ‘fight or flight’ responses. Our ancient ancestors responded to environmental threats on the basis of ‘fight or flight’ but things aren’t so straightforward these days. Humans are generally not well adapted to sustaining chronic stress over a long period of time, as is often the case with social activism and most modern forms of labour. The resultant physiological symptoms that involve the sympathetic nervous system can sometimes be a little frightening. In all the confusion we can actually exacerbate conditions by feeding a self-reinforcing psycho-physiological loop – voila, panic attacks!

The good news is that with a little know-how and preventative work, panic attacks are very easy to manage.

  • Panic attacks have a variety of symptoms but usually involve:
  • Hyperventilation
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Chest pains
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Anxiety and distress

Many people experiencing panic attacks for the first time interpret the symptoms as a heart attack, thus increasing their own level of distress and the intensity of the panic. If a heart attack is suspected however, it is best that you find the nearest first aid trained person.

Panic attacks are very common and most people will experience multiple episodes rather than a one-off. Multiple episodes are usually referred to as ‘panic disorder’ or ‘hyperventilation disorder’. If you are on the receiving end of this diagnosis don’t sweat it, the prevalence of this label says more about the discourse of abnormal psychology and biomedical models than you as a person.

If you recognise your-self as having a panic attack there are some very easy things you can do to help yourself:breathe

  • Consciously slow down your breathing. The easiest way to do this is to close your mouth and breathe through your nose. Talk yourself through it if you have to.
  • Focus your mind on positive things and notice that you are safe.
  • Tell someone you trust that you’re feeling anxious. Most people understand the experience of anxiety and can help you cope.

Reducing the intensity and frequency of panic attacks is also within your reach:

  • Learn to recognise stressful triggers and take action to reduce your exposure or psychological coping ability. Sometimes we can be triggered by seemingly random environmental stimuli and this can result in an ongoing association or phobia, cognitive-behavioural approaches are useful for these instances (with a bit of reading you can learn these, good counsellors will also be familiar with these approaches).
  • Maintain regular exercise and a healthy diet for managing psychological health over the long-term, short term dietary measures for panic and anxiety may include excluding stimulants like caffeine and sugar. Regular exercise and healthy diets routinely feature in the literature as the best practice for managing anxiety and mood disorders.
  • Practice breathing techniques when you’re feeling calm, meditation or mindfulness approaches are easy to understand and definitely worth exploring.
  • Access the help of a G.P. or other health care professional if symptoms persist or become unmanageable. But don’t be afraid to be critical of medication approaches – there’s lots of research out there which isn’t funded by large pharma!

So don’t forget – panic and hyperventilation attacks are completely normal, preventable, and manageable. Powerful activism involves a healthy body and mind, so lets arm ourselves with knowledge and keep promoting healthy cultures in our work.