Sweating. Shaking. Heart palpitations. Shortness of breath. Chest pain. You think you’re having a heart attack, but after seeking medical attention, you discover you just had a panic attack.
Panic attacks are actually more common than you might think when it comes to divorce. Whether you’ve experienced anxiety before or not, divorce is a major trauma and it can trigger all of these symptoms. They can be incredibly frightening, but there are ways to cope and reduce the severity and frequency of the attacks.
Knowledge is Power
What is the antidote to fear? Knowledge. This also holds true when it comes to panic attacks. When you understand what’s going on, the attacks don’t seem as scary.
Panic attacks can come out of nowhere, and they can also leave as quickly as they arrived. The good news is, panic attacks are not life-threatening. They usually peak in intensity around the 10-minute mark, then the symptoms slowly start to subside. The attacks rarely last longer than 30 minutes, so you can rest assured that things will get better. Once you know that they are short-term and not dangerous, it really comes down to managing the symptoms of the attack:
Chest Tightness/Difficulty Breathing:
Try taking deep breaths to help calm your breathing. If you start to hyperventilate, breathe through pursed lips like you would if you were whistling. You can also pinch one nostril closed and breathe through the other nostril to help slow your breathing and increase the amount of carbon dioxide in your body.
Choking Sensation/Lump in Throat Feeling:
Throat tightness, or the feeling of a lump in the throat, is another common panic attack symptom. You can try relaxing the throat muscles by gently stretching the neck (not enough that you feel pain) or letting out a large yawn, followed by a long sigh.
Short, shallow breaths can cause you to feel dizzy, so if you’re feeling lightheaded, it’s important to sit or lie down until the panic attack passes. Sometimes, closing your eyes until the dizziness subsides can also be helpful.
Progressive muscle relaxation is one of the most helpful tools you can use to calm the shaking and trembling experienced during a panic attack. To do this, make sure you are in a comfortable position (sitting or lying down). Begin at your feet, tensing the muscles for 5 seconds, then slowly relaxing the muscles. Work your way up the body, focusing on the thighs, buttocks, stomach, hands, arms, back, shoulders, and finally head (forehead and eyes). Once you have done the entire body, focus on some deep breathing for several minutes until the shaking has subsided.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Method
Grounding exercises like the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method can be very useful when it feels like your panic attack is spiraling out of control. Begin with some deep breathing, then acknowledge the following:
- 5 Things You Can See
- 4 Things You Can Touch
- 3 Things You Can Hear
- 2 Things You Can Smell
- 1 Thing You Can Taste
Grounding exercises can take some practice to achieve success, so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work right away. It’s a good idea to practice this exercise when you’re not having a panic attack so that when you do, you are already familiar with the technique.
Go Beyond Managing the Symptoms
One or two panic attacks aren’t cause for concern, but if they become a regular occurrence, it’s a good idea to seek help for the issues behind the attacks. Psychotherapy has proved very successful when it comes to the treatment of panic attacks, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy (PFPP).
Medications can also be used, either on their own or in combination with psychotherapy. Some antidepressants, or even beta-blocker medications, can be helpful in reducing the symptoms of panic attacks.
Remember that panic attacks are a normal response to a traumatic event, like a divorce. There isn’t something wrong with you if you are experiencing them, and you shouldn’t be afraid to seek the help you need to feel better. You can do this!