What is a panic attack? According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), a panic attack is “the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and includes at least four of the following symptoms:
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- Feelings of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
- Chills or heat sensations
- Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of dying” (ADAA.org)
Panic attacks are extremely scary events, and are often confused with real physical health problems. I know countless individuals who rushed to the ER when experiencing a panic attack, believing they needed to see a medical doctor for their physical health as opposed to mental health provider for their mental health.
While panic attacks are experienced in an extremely physiological, visceral way, they do, in fact, belong to the realm of mental health. So what do mental health providers advise you do when it comes to managing a panic attack? Numerous techniques and strategies exist, including those posted recently in a tweet that went viral. That list includes things such as breathing, taking sips of water and physical touch – all things that Buddhist psychology would recommend.
From a Buddhist perspective, thoughts and emotions are believed to be like weather – they come and they go. We, the Observer of thought and emotion, are like the sky, vast and infinite and capable of containing all of it – the storms and the sunshine. The key is to learn how to non-judgmentally observe our experiences, feeling them in our bodies and detaching from the “stories” in our heads as much as possible. In this sense, Buddhist psychology would advise that we observe the panic attack as sensations in our body, no more, no less. Where does it “live”? Is the sensation acute or dull, constant or changing? Can we assign a color or a texture to it? When we stay with the feelings and breathe through the sensations, when and how does it begin to change?
And change it will. One of the most helpful Buddhist teachings to remember, especially when having a panic attack, is that everything is impermanent – the only constant is change. In this sense, we can remind ourselves that whatever it is we’re experiencing in any given moment – no matter how pleasurable or painful – is fleeting.