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Coping with Panic Attacks after Trauma

Panic and panic attacks are very common after a traumatic event. Although a person can have panic attacks without a history of trauma, there is a correlation between the two. Aside from addressing the trauma, learning how to manage panic attacks and understanding what happens in the brain during one can be a very important step toward healing.


A panic attack is an experience of intense fear that is experienced mostly physiologically in the body. For this reason, people often describe a panic attack as a heart attack, and so they end up in the hospital. Once you've had your first panic attack, it is a lot easier to identify them in the moment. This is important as being able to label it will help you know what you need to do to manage it better.


A panic attack can happen spontaneously or can be triggered by a traumatic memory. When this happens, the body perceives whatever is happening as threatening, activating the fight/flight system. The body wants to make sure you make it out of wherever you are safely, therefore it acts accordingly. The problem with this is that if nothing around you is actually unsafe, then your body is being activated for no reason. Therefore, the first step in managing a panic attack is trying to notice that you are safe. Having others remind you of this when you first have a panic attack can also be helpful. One of the best ways to do this is by describing the environment around you while using your senses to find an anchor in the present.


As you are reminding yourself that things are safe, it is also helpful to either find an object or a person around you that you can try to connect with. If you are alone in that moment, try to look for an object that isn't threatening to you. Maybe it's a tree outside, or a picture on the wall, or an ice cube. As you notice it, try to connect to it while attempting to regulate your breathing. If you are around someone who makes you feel safe or calm, try to make eye contact with them while matching their breathing tempo.


Something to remember with panic attacks is that the more you try to control them, the more powerful they become. The key word here is managing them. You want to learn how to manage them by riding them out, rather than trying to stop them or control them.


Some things to avoid:


- negative self-talk. If you find yourself overwhelmed by your negative self-talk, redirect your thoughts to this: "In this moment, I am not in danger. In this moment, I am safe". You can focus on all the other thoughts after the panic attack has passed.


- using behaviors like self-harm, drinking, or using other substances to try to manage the panic attacks.


If you are struggling with panic attacks, know that you are not alone. You are not crazy. And there is nothing wrong with you! A lot of people have panic attacks, especially if you have a history of trauma. Understanding the impact of the trauma can help reduce the likelihood of trauma-induced panic attacks. Click here for a list of free workbooks I created to help you explore different aspects of your trauma.