Panic attacks can seem to strike out of nowhere. Though they do sometimes occur in response to an acute stressful event, they can also come when you are finally at rest or experiencing no significant stress of any kind. However and whenever they occur, they can feel inescapable, and many people who are in recovery find that the symptoms trigger an urgent desire to drink or get high in order to quell the symptoms.
The good news is that when you enter drug rehab and seek treatment for a substance use disorder, you should also get the treatment you need to effectively address co-occurring mental health disorders like panic disorder. While working with a psychologist and/or another medical professional, you can learn how to stabilize in recovery and acquire coping mechanisms that will help you to decrease the likelihood of experiencing panic attacks in the future.
But what coping mechanisms work, and what can actually have a positive impact when you are in the throes of panic?
In addition to seeking medical and therapeutic care to address the underlying issues and/or trauma that may be driving the panic disorder, it is a good idea to make changes in your day-to-day life that help to lower your overall stress levels. When you are exposed to fewer stressors on an everyday basis, you may be better able to focus on your co-occurring anxiety and/or trauma disorder. Some options include:
- Ending toxic relationships: Sometimes those who are closest to us contribute to the levels of stress we experience each day. It can be difficult and it will take time and support, but ultimately, ending any and all toxic relationships can help us to breathe more freely and experience less stress.
- Practicing self-care: Addressing acute health issues, getting enough rest, eating healthfully, and working out regularly can all help you to keep stress levels low.
- Spending time with positive people: The more people you have around you who make you feel confident, strong, and relaxed, the less likely you will be to carry a heavy burden of stress with you from day to day.
- Staying actively engaged with your recovery: This means attending therapy sessions regularly, seeing your mental health and medical doctor as needed, and staying active in your sober community.
During a Panic Attack
When you are in the midst of a panic attack, it is not easy to think clearly, much less formulate a multi-step plan. Instead, it is recommended that you do just one thing that will improve your situation. Any one of the following will do:
- Take a deep breath. It can be difficult to do this, both physically and mentally, but taking a measured breath, holding it for a few counts, and then exhaling for longer than you inhaled can trigger your autonomic system to slow and help you to feel calmer.
- Watch guilty pleasure TV. Some people suggest that watching a sitcom, reality TV, or some other mindless TV show can be helpful during a panic attack.
- Call someone. If you are really struggling and feeling like you want to swallow a bunch of pills or down a beer with the hope that it will help you to “even out,” call your sponsor, your therapist (if appropriate), or a close friend or family member. Just talk to these people in advance to ensure that they are prepared to take your call at any time of the day or night.
- Change your location. If you are inside, get up and head outdoors, even if it is just out onto the balcony or outside the front door of wherever you are. If you are outside, start moving. Take a walk and clear your head, or go sit and breathe for a moment.
Identifying the Physical and Emotional Response
For most people in recovery who experience panic attacks, the symptoms are physical in nature.
- Rapid heartbeat
- The feeling of choking
- Chest pain
- Numbness or tingling
- Feeling hot or cold
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of American (ADAA), the physical symptoms of panic can include:
Panic attacks are emotional as well, and they can be characterized by feeling out of control or like death is imminent. Paying attention to what it feels like for a panic attack to develop can help you to notice what is happening early on and immediately start helping yourself before the panic attack peaks.
What do you do to ease your panic attacks in recovery? How do you handle it if a panic attack triggers cravings for relapse?