Panic attacks cause tremendous suffering for those who get them. A simple trigger such as being in a social group can suddenly elicit a tidal wave of anxiety, fear, confusion, derealization and panic. People experiencing panic attacks sometimes report that they feel like they are losing complete control, going crazy or having a heart attack. Often the pulse rate soars, blood pressure jumps and the panic attack sufferer trembles and feels shaky and completely overwhelmed.
I am familiar with these feelings because when I was in my early 20s I had panic attacks. They were awful and deeply scary. For some people panic attacks happen due to a specific trigger, like driving over a bridge, talking before a group of people, or walking across an empty parking lot. Others experience panic attacks “out of the blue”. In my experience, I periodically had a panic attack when I went into a crowded grocery store. I felt an overwhelming desire to flee and return home during those attacks.
A panic attack tends to only last 10-30 minutes, but the residual effect of all that adrenaline washing through the body leaves a strong feeling of residual anxiety, depletion, shock and sometimes shame for having no control over the body and having to leave a situation suddenly. Many people who experience panic attacks end up isolating in their homes for fear of eliciting a panic attack. This can lead to agoraphobia, or fear of being in crowds and social gatherings.
Reasons for Panic Attacks
Recovering from panic attacks takes effort, time and patience and holistic methods of healing them are very effective. The underlying reason for panic attacks is that the nervous system is constantly in a state of high alert and readiness. This could be due to a number of factors.
1-Trauma. If a person has experienced emotional, physical or sexual trauma, the nervous system pays a price by overreacting to external stimuli. Certain things that normally would appear benign to others can elicit an intense overreaction by folks who have sustained trauma.
2- Diet. A steady diet of caffeinated beverages, sugar, and non-nutritious processed foods can steadily damage the resiliency of the nervous system. For others, specific allergens such as gluten, alcohol, dairy or MSG can cause cascading biochemical changes that can help trigger panic attacks.
3- Lifestyle. The body needs significant portions of a 24 hour cycle to rest and recuperate. If someone sleeps little, uses drugs and alcohol, has unhappy relations, or works in a toxic environment (physically or emotionally), they are more susceptible to damaging their nervous system and setting the table for developing panic attacks.
4- Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal. One of the most common ways to develop panic attacks happens when a person misses doses of a psychiatric medication regime or quickly withdraws off one of these drugs. For example, though benzodiazapenes like Xanax and klonopin are commonly prescribed for panic attacks, they can cause habituation and then lead to severe nervous system deregulation and worsening panic attacks if stopped quickly.
The treatment of panic attacks is increasingly happening in the doctor’s office or with a psychiatrist. Attacks are commonly treated through the use of psychiatric drugs such as anti-depressant SSRIs, benzodiazapenes and occasionally antipsychotics. Many people just choose this route without psychological counseling. Benzodiazapenes can be remarkably effective in the short term for quelling a panic attack but they can quickly become addictive and then extraordinarily difficult to withdraw from.
Counseling can be quite effective, especially if the therapist helps navigate previous trauma, and encourages lifestyle changes. CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is commonly prescribed for panic attacks and CBT trained therapists tend to focus on shifting thought patterns, gradually exposing someone to their triggers as a way of developing resiliency (exposure therapy) as well as addressing positive lifestyle changes.
Holistic Treatment: Setting the Table
While CBT can be quite helpful, I promote a slightly different take. I don’t think you can simply change your thought patterns, beliefs or perceptions (the cognitive part) without addressing a damaged nervous system first. If someone feels intensely wired, no amount of restructuring talk or exposure therapy will help until those somatic sensations of severe anxiety are addressed first. In essence I am a Somatic Behavior Therapist. I believe the body and nervous system need to be optimally nourished and repaired before thoughts, perceptions and beliefs can change.
I call this system of therapy “Setting the Table.” Before sitting down to eat, it’s important to set the table in the right way. Likewise, before trying to manage triggers that often elicit panic attacks, it’s important to prepare the body and nervous system for managing that stress.
To properly “set the table” as a way to heal yourself of panic attacks means focusing on optimal ways of nourishing your nervous system. This takes some effort but it will pay off in spades. Just as someone who is overweight needs to put in sustained effort to lose weight, someone who has panic attacks needs to put in sustained effort over time to see results as well. Here are the five main ways that helped me to overcome panic attacks.
5 Ways to Naturally Heal from Panic Attacks
1- Start a regular practice of yoga.
Yoga has long been known to be profoundly helpful for strengthening the nervous system. I wouldrecommend long slow stretches in certain positions (asanas) as a way of healing the nervous system. Gentle forms of yoga include Hatha and Yin Yoga. I would avoid overly excitatory and intense yoga forms such as advanced vinyasa (flow) and ashtanga yoga as they can be too much on a fragile nervous system. Slow and steady wins the race. You don’t have to be a thin vegan 25 year old to do yoga. There are many classes and videos that are geared towards gentle restorative yoga that is appropriate for all ages. A regular yoga practice was the primary way that I healed from panic attacks.
2- Eat a Whole Foods Diet.
Yup. Simple enough. Avoid processed foods, especially food with additives in them. All those dies, flavoring and coloring can often do a number on the nervous system. MSG was a particular poison for me that would almost always push me into increased anxiety and sometimes panic attacks. I also noticed that excessive simple sugar carbs such as white bread, pasta, white rice and alcohol could also aggravate and encourage panic attacks.
Eating a diet rich in vegetables and avoiding simple sugars was a huge help for me on my healing path. Some will notice specific foods that seem to stimulate more of an anxiety response, even if they are “whole foods”. For me, tomato sauce, wheat flour and cheese would do it in a heart beat. Others may notice nuts, red meat, olives, etc. Check in with yourself and notice how the food you eat makes you feel. Keeping a food and mood diary can be really helpful. After a number of years I noticed that I could have a lot of these foods without inducing an attack, so don’t think this is a lifetime requirement to be abstemious. But when you are experiencing these attacks daily, paying close attention to diet is paramount.
3. Take Herbs.
One of the most profound ways of strengthening your nervous system is to drink a nourishing tea made of nutritious, vitamin and mineral rich nutrients. Oatstraw infusion is particularly strong in nutrients that will nourish the nervous system, including calcium and magnesium. I am a big fan of getting your vitamins and minerals through diet primarily and then through herbal teas supplementally. I don’t believe the body adequately absorbs vitamins and minerals properly when they are taken orally. I am also concerned about overdosing on some of these nutrients to a detrimental level.
Oatstraw tea is easy to make. Simply add a cup of the loose herb (buy it here at Mt. Rose Herbs in bulk) to a quart mason jar, then fill to the top with boiling water. Yes, a whole cup, not just a few tablespoons. You need quite a bit to receive all the nutrients needed to heal. Let it steep overnight, decant out the oatstraw and drink the infusion throughout the day. You will feel calmer, stronger and have a more resilient nervous system to be able to handle stress. Oatstraw has no known contraindications but should be avoided if allergic to oats.
If you are experiencing a panic attack and are looking for direct relief you can take 30 drops (one dropper full) of Motherwort or Lemon Balm Tincture stirred in water. These tinctures can be very helpful for reducing the worst of an attack. You can take one of these tinctures once to twice an hour until symptoms have reduced. Please do not take these herbs if you are already taking benzodiazapene or antipsychotic psychiatric drugs. Also avoid taking motherwort during pregnancy.
4. Turn it Off.
Yup…those IPads, iPhones, TVs, Smart phones, PCs with netflix, Twitter, Facebook, etc., are all taking up more of our free time, jacking up our nervous systems and decreasing our attention span. Yes I love all of them too but I also acknowledge that they affect my nervous system and can make me feel increasingly speedy, edgy and burnt out after too much “screen time”. If you are prone to nervous system disorders like panic attacks, too much screen time can cause increased instability.
Try to carve out plenty of non-screen “real world” time that involves fresh air, sunshine, movement and play. These activities will help strengthen your ability to handle stress and reduce your panic attacks.
5. Go to Sleep Early.
Slowing down and going to bed early was a normal part of human activity all the way until the Industrial Age in the 1800′s. Without electric light, it was hard to engage in many activities past sundown besides reading and socializing by candlelight. With the advent of electrical lighting, we have quickly moved into a 24/7 culture where people work swing and graveyard shifts, stores are open all night and most of us are engaged in watching TV or surfing the internet most evenings.
This increased night time activity has diminished the amount of hours we sleep at night and tends to overstimulate us right when our normal body clock tells us to slow down and become quieter. Though we are diurnal mammals, we are quickly transforming into cathemeral creatures (both diurnal and nocturnal). This in turn is compromising our health and well being. We are more prone to depression, anxiety, and panic attacks due to this systemic change in habit.
So….turn off the machines after dinner. Lower the lights. Light some candles. Play cards with your kids. Sip tea. Take a bath. Play guitar. Talk with your spouse. Make love. Go to bed early. Your nervous system will love you for it.
By making some of these changes, I was able to profoundly improve my mental health and eliminated my panic attacks. With a little time, effort and care, panic attacks do not have to be a regular part of your life.