Q: How can I deal with panic attacks? They’re keeping me awake at night.

Photo by John, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A: Firstly, practise reminding yourself (even when calm) not to trust anything that looks real when you’re having a panic attack, no matter how convincing it might seem. Panic attacks are the result of your mind trying to keep you safe, except the data it’s using is incomplete or faulty – so the effect is rather like the wheels of a car desperately spinning in mud. Panic ends up digging you deeper but can’t succeed in moving you forward.

There are two reasons for this: (1) things are almost certainly not the way they appear right now, because they’re being horribly exaggerated and distorted by a flood of powerful brain chemicals. If you’ve had a panic attack before and looked back on it, you’ll recognise this from your own experience. And (2) as long as you’re in this state of mind, you are not able to solve anything effectively. Like those spinning car wheels, there’s nothing solid for your mind to get a grip on in that state, no matter how much it accelerates. However, when the panicked state is finished, you’ll be much better able to fix any actual problems.

Promise yourself that for now, you’ll stop “accelerating” and instead repeatedly return your focus to your breathing – and that you will address the issue when your mind has returned to its normal state (and your mental wheels are back on solid ground).

Also, an interesting fact – emotions last a maximum of 90 seconds UNLESS we continue to “refresh” the story. So although it will go against your instincts, if you can aim to allow the panic to simply be present and to pass through you, the sensation may finish much sooner than you expected.