How do we wrest back control from our fearful Amygdala?
Mayo clinic describes a panic attack as a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks may occur due to phobias, stressful situations, fear of loss of a loved one or a possession, PTSD, etc.
Many trauma survivors have experienced panic attacks at some point in their lives. For most of us, chronic, long term stress is a major predictor of panic attacks. Our fear center “Amygdala” is over aroused during a panic while our thinking center “Pre-Frontal Cortex” is slow to kick in to modulate the fear response.
Symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, feeling faint, nausea and so on are a result of this over-arousal of Amygdala. People have tried a few techniques and found them helpful.
1. Remember to Breathe Consciously!
Pay attention to your breathing. Breathing is the first thing that is hit during a panic attack which brings in other symptoms as a chain reaction. Breathing is fast and erratic at the onset of an attack. Be alert and consciously slow down your breathing.
Try to see if you can point to a Trigger or a Cue
Sometimes you can identify the trigger. It could be a place, person or memory associated with a traumatic event. Being aware of the trigger can give you some sense of control.
Distance yourself from the Trigger or Cue
Foreknowledge is forewarned. When you know something can trigger a panic attack in you, it is wise to remove yourself from the situation. Many people have found going for a walk, listening to music and dancing useful in distancing themselves from the situations. If public places pose a danger of trigger you can find refuge in a restroom or less crowded spots.
4.Use your Body to Ground yourself.
Taking a cold bath, stretching, touching ice and many other techniques can be tried to ground yourself in reality. Try to develop a few techniques of your own which soothe you and keep you grounded. You can check out more such techniques in “Things to do when you are feeling down” and other related articles on our website.
5. Count or Chant
Repeating a mantra, counting numbers, repeating a phrase like “I am happy, I am safe” provides a person with strength and also helps them focus. Be mindful when you chant. Listen to your own voice when you count or chant. Enunciate the words. As focus on the chanting increases, the body will automatically slow down its responses and become calm.
6. This too shall pass
This is perhaps one of the most important techniques. Remember that the situation is temporary and soon things will become normal again.
7. Talk to someone
It is always helpful to talk about your experiences to a close confidante like a spouse, best friend, parent or a sibling whom you trust. You can send them a simple text when you feel an impending attack so they can be by your side. Be around people whom you trust and can help. Don’t assume people will judge you as being weak - most people would relate to your situation and be supportive. Of course, talking to a trained therapist would help as well.
Neurologically, these techniques move your “centre” from the fearful Amygdala and allow the thinking pre-frontal Cortex to take over. Longer term, regular breathing exercises and mediation would help improve your stress response and reduce the intensity of the attacks.