I still remember the day like yesterday. It was January 2017. I was on a business trip, sitting in a restaurant in a coastal town in Algeria. I was finishing my meal when I felt that I could not process the food I had just swallowed.
At first, I thought I ate too fast; I need to slow down. But then I felt my body heating up. My heart started beating faster, and I had a sharp pain in my gut.
I was in the process of experiencing my first panic attack, and I had no clue what to do during panic attacks!
This sense of overwhelming conquered me. Here I am in a foreign country, on a business trip that has turned out to be a waste of time, having dinner with two guys that I had just met on the same day. And I can’t digest my food!
I felt the need to get up and walk around. I felt my collar tightening. I wanted to go outside and walk around and get away from people. I just wanted it to stop. Meanwhile, I am dealing with the additional stress of trying to conceal the fact that I am feeling any discomfort.
It took about 10 minutes for me to feel better. I attributed the event to digestive issues and the Algerian food that my body was not accustomed to. I had no idea that what I had experienced would be of a series of panic attacks.
More Incidents as I did not know what to do during panic attacks
Over the next few months, I experienced about another five incidents like the one above. I experienced it on a morning flight from Athens to Zurich, where I ran to the bathroom alone.
Try having a panic attack in a tiny airplane bathroom. The claustrophobia gets to you! This time, I blamed the incident on the airplane breakfast that must have upset me.
Another time in a burger joint, I blamed the meaty burger and the thick fries.
But the most stressful moment came on a long weekend getaway with my girlfriend. Again it was in a restaurant. I reached the point where I did not want to visit restaurants or eat in public anymore. I would order something very light to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
My girlfriend was the first to raise the possibility that what I was facing were not digestive issues but, in fact, panic attacks. I dismissed the idea quickly as it didn’t fit into the narrative that I had crafted. But I did start researching online and realized that she might be right.
Confronting the Reality of My Panic Attacks
Upon returning to the city, I sought out my therapist. I tend to visit her fairly scarcely (like once every two years), but her advice is always golden whenever I seek her out. She immediately confirmed that I had been experiencing panic attacks.
After finally being forced to confront reality, I set on the long journey of confronting my panic attacks. One book that helped me greatly was Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks by Barry McDonagh.
Confronting my panic attacks was no easy task. It took me several months to get them under control and properly anticipate and prevent them.
There are two aspects involved in dealing with my panic attacks: The first is what to do when you actually experience one. And the second aspect is how to set up your life to prevent them from occurring.
Accept that one is coming
Once you have experienced a few panic attacks, you get pretty good at anticipating when one is coming. There‘s a few seconds before the panic attack when you can feel it approaching. For me, it was the sharp pain in my gut. Often the dread of the attack approaching triggers the panic and the chain of events.
But something McDonagh teaches in his book is to reframe the approach of the attack. Instead of thinking, “Oh crap, another panic attack,” I would tell myself, “It’s just a panic attack, and it will be over very soon.” My life and health were not in danger. This is what people suffering from panic attacks need to remember. You will feel better in a few minutes.
Deep Controlled Breaths
Whenever I felt discomfort, my therapist advised me to start taking slow deep breaths from the diaphragm. I remembered my days when I had tried yoga and knew that slowing down your breathing works wonders. Count the length of your breaths, 4 seconds inhale, 4 seconds hold, and 4 seconds exhale.
I immediately implemented this technique when the sharp pain in my stomach made its appearance. And it worked. Adopting this technique and focusing on my breathing for 1–2 minutes helped my attacks go away.
Speaking of breathing, I adopted the practice of doing long breaths throughout the day. Most people who experience panic attacks have never learned to take long, deep breaths. It actually takes some training to inhale and exhale slowly. A meditation practice focused on breathing also helped.
If you want to explore the issue of deep breathing and how it can help you, then you should check out the work by Leah Lagos. Resonance breathing has helped me immensely when not knowing what to do during panic attacks.
Improving my Long-Term Mental Health
Apart from the immediate techniques that I adopted to prevent these attacks, I had to ask myself why I had started getting them suddenly at 40. My business had been suffering in the previous years due to the economic crisis in Greece. I had lots of worries about getting paid on time and having enough work to keep my staff on payroll.
My approach to these problems had always been very stoic: I saw myself as a leader that persevered through difficult times. In fact, I had become kind of addicted to heroic perseverance.
I remember my therapist looking at me and saying. Your body is talking to you! It is sending you a message. You need to do something about it. I needed to do s
I took stock of my work life. I looked at the types of customers I had. I realized that I was losing money on some projects. I focused on taking on more profitable projects. I practiced saying no more.
I got rid of some toxic and manipulative customers that were causing 80% of my problems. I was also fortunate that the economic climate in Greece started shifting after many years.
I also improved my eating habits. Yes, I had been having digestive issues as I had been consuming too much sugar and garbage.
And by gradually adopting a low-carb diet and intermittent fasting, my gut problems improved dramatically. Maybe there was some truth to the theory around my gut problems.
There is a lot of evidence about a mind-gut connection. Now, I don’t know if the stress was causing my gut problems or if my gut problems were causing me stress, but by improving both, I stopped having panic attacks. My last panic attack was in the spring of 2018, about 15 months after the first one.
For those of you suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, things can get better. It might take months or even years, but there is hope.
The above advice worked for me. Try out the techniques and refine them in whatever way that will help you. Remember: You are not alone. And when you do get an attack, remember that it will be finished very soon.