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  • Writer's pictureRachelle Zemlok, PsyD


Updated: Sep 16, 2020

We know that the first responder family lifestyle brings its own unique stressors to each of us. First responders and their spouses can commonly display a lot of symptoms of anxiety, PTSD or Post traumatic stress injuries, and panic attacks. Here are 5 tips to help you fight… I mean accept...a panic attack.

1. TRY AND UTILIZE DISTRACTION PRIOR TO PANIC SETTING IN. Distraction is a great tool for decreasing anxious thoughts in the moment. If you can identify some anxiety symptoms that have led to panic in the past you might want to try focusing on counting your breaths. It doesn't have to be your breath, you can count something in front of you too (like how many tiles are on the ceiling). Maybe the distraction you choose is a picture of people you really enjoy or an animal or baby you love (take a moment and try and picture something they do or say that you adore or is calming to you).

2. INSTEAD OF WORRYING YOU MIGHT HAVE ONE, PREPARE FOR WHAT YOU’LL DO IF YOU DO HAVE ONE. Many individuals worry about having panic attacks very far in advance. They might worry about an event one might occur at. We want to decrease worry overall. Worrying about your worry isn't going to do that. So this might be more effective to help you let that worry go. What I recommend you do instead is prepare for the panic. Tell yourself, "I might have a panic attack and there's nothing I can really do about that. If this happens I will… (insert plan here)" Letting go of the fear and accepting that you may not have control over it and then having a plan you're okay with can help you avoid the panic all together.

3. REASSURE YOURSELF THAT YOU’RE GOING TO BE OKAY. I want you to know panic attacks are extremely physically uncomfortable, but not life threatening. Many people who get them worry that they are going to die in that moment, because it actually feels that way sometimes. Often times people feel like they are having a heart attack due to chest pain. Adding that worry to a moment of panic is only going to cause it to last longer. First get confirmation from a medical professional that you are not having heart problems or other medical emergencies. Then, the first tool I'd like you to use is to reassure yourself in that moment that you're going to be okay and it will all be over soon.

4. UNDERSTAND THE BIOLOGICAL PROCESS OF PANIC AND UNDERSTAND WHEN IT MAY HAVE TO RUN ITS COURSE. A panic attack goes something like this... your brain is reacting as though you're in extreme danger (think lion attacking you). It sends this message to your body and your body does what it should to protect you. The result is all the physical symptoms you experience like your heart starts beating quickly to pump blood to your extremities, your adrenaline starts pumping, maybe you're shaking, sweating, breathing quickly. This is great news! If you were being attacked by a lion you'd need all of this to be happening for you to escape. Panic attacks are occurring because you’re having thoughts that are triggering that alarm, when maybe you don’t need it. Once you understand this, it’s easier to understand that once your brain has sent that message to your body, your body has to go through all the motions. There's no tool that's going to just turn it off in the moment. All you can do is reassure your brain and body that you're not in extreme danger and that you're safe. Eventually you’ll calm back down once you can do this. Once you understand that, it makes sense why the best approach to panic is preventative by reducing the thoughts and symptoms that lead us there in the first place.

5. TRY TO KEEP YOURSELF IN THE PRESENT AND GROUND YOURSELF WITH YOUR CURRENT ENVIRONMENT. Usually panic is the result of fears about what might happen, not what is actually happening. One great tool to use while you're waiting for your physical symptoms to subside is to try very hard to bring yourself out of your fearful thoughts and into the moment. Find a way to be very present with what's real and happening right now. Look around, ask yourself to focus on something you see and notice as many details as possible (what color is it, what's it there for, what's it doing), ask yourself to focus on something you can feel physically such as something in your hand or an article of clothing (what does it feel like, what's the temperature etc), try and identify something you can hear etc. Checking in with your senses can be a great way to ground yourself in the moment to help decrease your panic symptoms.

Panic symptoms are tricky, it's not until you accept that your body is going to do what it needs to that your body is actually able to start calming down. In other words, try not to fight it as hard as that might be. Panic attacks are scary, but what can be most helpful is understanding why these are happening for you and decreasing the stress or anxiety that may have been building that led to them in the first place. You can do this with help from a mental health professional. If you, your spouse, or your child are struggling with anxiety or panic symptoms I can help.

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