Panic attacks are becoming more common. Stress levels are rising generally as people struggle to fit the contents of several lives into one normal 24-hour period. Panic attacks often start with what feels like a surge of emotional and mental changes, but they manifest extremely physically and are actually very amenable to practical and straightforward treatment. It may feel as if the panic attack is ‘all in your head’, but actually it is a chain reaction of physical events that can be understood and often avoided.
Adrenalin is one of those two-edged swords that dangle around our lives so menacingly. Its function is to save our lives, and this it is undoubtedly good at doing when our lives are actually in danger - when facing a charging bull, rescuing a child from a burning building, or grappling a street thief to the ground, adrenalin will be the chemical that powers you to success. It does this by activating changes in your body’s chemistry.
- Making sugar available for your brain and muscles so that you can think and act swiftly and effectively
- Pushing up intake of oxygen and pumping it around your body faster than normal so that your muscles won’t seize up
- Ensuring that you sweat more to avoid overheating in battle
- Shutting down unnecessary systems to divert all resources to the muscles, brain, heart and lungs
This is all well and good if your life is actually in danger, but the instances where this is the case in modern life (given that you don’t live in an area of political unrest or spend your working days with crocodiles or black mambas) are limited and adrenalin tends to be produced for other reasons. Some of these are based on mental stresses—work deadlines, motorway madness, wrangles with relatives… these are fairly inevitable when inhabiting a world filled with other people. Others, though, are purely physical and can be avoided.
- Blood sugar levels fall, either because you’ve not eaten for ages or because you’ve eaten a heap of refined sugar, which has made your blood sugar shoot up and then crash. This fall will trigger adrenalin release.
- You start dehydrating, either because you haven’t drunk enough water or because you’ve had too much caffeine. Caffeine also triggers adrenalin release all on its own—in fact it’s one of the most effective ways of pushing up adrenalin levels, barring bungee jumping.
- You breathe very shallowly, reducing the amount of oxygen in your system and pushing the body to breathe faster to make up the deficit.
Many factors push you closer to the start of a panic attack, so here’s how to reduce the likelihood of triggering it.
Eat regularly - every 3 to 4 hours, avoiding refined sugar and using instead fresh or dried fruit, nuts and seed mixes. Soup is always a good option as it’s easy to digest, and oatcakes make a nourishing accompaniment. Chew well and don’t eat on the run, as you won’t be able to digest if you do.
Drink at least 1.5 litres of still, plain water daily, spread out during the day, not with meals, to avoid dehydration. At the first sign of a panic attack, drink more water and/or fruit juice.
Avoid caffeine in all its guises. If you’re a bit of a caffeine freak, come off slowly to avoid withdrawal symptoms (noting en route that things that are good for you don’t cause withdrawal symptoms!).
Use breathing exercises that will gradually improve your oxygen intake. A good book on the subject is Breathe Better, Feel Better by Howard Kent. Straightening your shoulders and opening up your chest instead of hunching forward is a great start.
Take Passiflora if you regularly become anxious, and Hypericum if your anxiety is causing you to feel low. Magnesium and a vitamin B complex will help to stabilise your nervous system, and if you feel your blood sugar levels are very wobbly then steady them with a chromium supplement.