During a panic attack, our bodies and brains are firing on all cylinders. We can often feel quite depressed afterwards; some people have compared this to a hangover. The fear might subside, our breathing can return to normal, and we’re normally left feeling slightly dazed and empty. It takes a lot of energy, having a panic attack, and our body is exhausted. It is an emotional hangover - panic attacks are draining.
Although panic attacks are often linked to panic or anxiety disorders, once we are actually in the throes of a panic attack, we are having a physiological response to fear.
So, what can we do after a panic attack to aid recovery and start to feel ourselves again?
Firstly, acknowledge this stage kindly to yourself. People might expect you to hop up and carry on as normal. If it’s possible, go slow for a while now. It’s not your responsibility to psychoeducate these people (although if you feel like it, please do!), but you need to rest. Your body and brain has just been through a lot, give yourself permission to go a bit slower for the rest of the day (if you possibly can. If circumstances don’t allow it, write yourself a mental IOU).
Seek comfort - however that looks to you. Maybe you want to speak to someone in particular who you find comforting, or physically seek them out. Maybe you want to put on your PJs and curl up on the sofa. We feel quite fragile after a panic attack so this is a really important time to practise some self-kindness and positive self-talk.
If it’s not possible for you to immediately seek comfort (maybe you’re at work or in public) think about the ways you can comfort yourself once you are home, and make those little promises to yourself. Once you’re home - keep your promise!
Your body has just been put through the ringer. Sometimes, because during a panic attack or a period of anxiety, the raised cortisol levels also raise the hydrochloric acid levels in our stomachs, which is why anxiety and panic is often accompanied by quite a sick feeling. Have a snack if you can. You might not really feel like it, but your body will thank you, you really need the energy. Failing that, try to drink something, even just some cold water.
Are there any herbal teas that help you to feel calm? One of my friends swears by peppermint tea, and I always opt for a chamomile tea in the evening. Experiment with these, you might find a great herbal cocktail that will help you to feel a bit more like yourself after a panic attack.
Notice your environment
The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for perception of emotions, this becomes hyperactive during a panic attack. By switching focus onto something else, we’re taking power away from the amygdala and back to the frontal cortex. Even by focusing on our hands (maybe slowly squeezing alternate hands into fists, or touching each finger on with our index fingers or thumbs), this switches our thinking back to cause-and-effect; and out of fight, flight or freeze.
Try moving about or changing position. If you were sitting or crouching, stand up and walk about. If you were pacing up and down, sit down for a while. Sometimes just physically changing our position can help to shift gears just because our body has to focus on doing something else.
Once we’ve had a bit of time and we feel mentally and emotionally able to, it can be really helpful to spend a bit of time reflecting on what happened. This can prepare us for future panic attacks, help to identify triggers, help to build up helpful coping mechanisms, and possibly recognise the less helpful coping mechanisms.
You might prefer to reflect on your own, or with someone else. As always, find a way that works for you.
If there are any other ways that you like to look after yourself, please do share them! I’ll add them to this blog post in case they help anyone else.