Updated: May 5, 2019
When visiting social media mental health support groups, of which I do frequently, there are several destructive patterns of behavior people with panic disorders get sucked into that I frequently witness. Many of these behaviors not only prevent recovery but actually make panic disorders worse. Many of these mistakes I also made myself before eventually, changing my behavior and achieving recovery. I have written about them here so others don't fall into the same trap and can recover, potentially quicker than I did.
1. Focusing on Short-Term Remedies
To recover from a panic disorder, it takes time, effort and a lot of perseverance; there are no quick fixes.
Examples of some quick-fixes which don't aid long-term recovery include: Magnesium supplements, sleeping aids, Benzodiazepines and beta-blockers, breathing exercises, distraction or keeping busy (in my opinion).
If you’ve had a panic disorder for several years, all of a sudden taking a magnesium capsule once a day isn’t going to solve all your problems, despite what you might have watched on YouTube. Magnesium can be beneficial as it has been well-documented that many of us suffer from a magnesium deficiency. But, who knows if its the anxiety causing the magnesium deficiency and not the other way around? Why haven't we had anxiety and panic attacks all our lives if this is the case? There are cases of people taking daily magnesium supplements and it helping but I would be amazed if it had ever completely cured someone of a panic disorder.
Sleeping aids can help many cure their current insomnia, and as a result, reduce their anxiety the next day, but how about curing the anxiety so you can sleep well every night, without medication?
Benzodiazepines can be really effective during a very stressful situation or when you’re having a panic attack, they help to lower your heart rate and thus get you calm again. This is great, but these drugs are very addictive and weren't created for long term use; people eventually need to take higher and higher dosages to get the same effect; they can also have nasty withdrawal symptoms once a person decides to stop taking them, especially after doing so for an extended period of time.
Breathing techniques can be great for some people to help them calm down and gain normality during a panic attack, or during anxious episodes, however breathing techniques can also be very scary for some who deal with a panic disorder and can make them feel worse! (like me) They do take practice so you could technically argue this isn't a short-term solution, however, they aren’t going to stop the panic attack from occurring in the first place, which is surely the end goal.
Keeping busy and distraction can work, sometimes. But what happens when you're not busy? What happens when you fail to distract yourself? This is also all based on the presumption that a panic attack is an easy thing to just not think about; it also makes ignoring your anxiety a habit. Ignoring you anxiety or pretending it doesn't exist is not recommended, this will only make your panic disorder worse.
Anything that is done, or taken, at the time of a panic attack is already far too late and is therefore only a short-term remedy, in my opinion.
During my own previous panic disorder I tried almost everything listed above, and then some. I improved at times but then only to deteriorate again. This is because I tried out things that were supposed to help, and when they didn't help fairly quickly, I lost hope and I went back to thinking either "oh no, this is going to last forever" or "this cannot be just anxiety because these remedies would've cured the anxiety." Fortunately, for the millionth time, I would still have been completely wrong.
On top of all the draw-backs of these short-term remedies already mentioned, the common pitfall in all of them is that they only work in the moment of the panic attack and anxiety, they do NOT prevent a panic attack from materialising in the first place. Therefore, we will forever be using these so-called remedies without ever getting better and moving away from a panic disorder. If that's the case, how are they a remedy at all? The reason why they don't prevent a panic attack from happening is because none of them teach us to overcome the fear of the physical symptoms e.g. chest pains, headaches, difficulty breathing and choking etc. Only then, once you have overcome the fear of the physical symptoms, can we then prevent a panic attack from happening, before it's too late. This is the key to overcoming a current panic disorder.
2. Failing to Delay Gratification.
I believe many people actually know how to recover or at least manage their panic attacks more effectively, but as it involves such sacrifice from their current fun social lives they aren’t willing to put the work in. All they can see is the "boring" life right now, rather than how it would feel after coming out the other side months/ a year down the line. (I share with those people this mind-set with many things so I understand; I'm also sure there is something we could blame it on.)
A large part of my recovery was down to making sacrifices (although at the time, due to my anxiety being so bad, it didn't feel like I had a choice) in order to improve and focus on my anxiety recovery.
Some sacrifices I made: I rarely socialized, I stopped going abroad for several years, I stopped drinking caffeine, I gave up alcohol and nights out completely (at University). These sacrifices lasted around 2 years.
I probably took the idea of sacrifice too far, and maybe part of it was due to agoraphobia, but the point still stands. I’m certain many people know that their anxiety would improve dramatically with some big sacrifices, especially quitting alcohol, but they believe that the sacrifice is too great or that it's not the right moment. Here is an example I have seen several times,“I can’t really do that now because all my friends drink and so I'd get left behind.” But they’re all focusing on the marshmallow now, rather than the sweet shop later.
An important, and positive, thing to remember is that these sacrifices don't have to be forever; once I overcame my panic attacks completely, I began to slowly reintroduce alcohol and caffeine and live a normal life and socialize often, but I would never have come out the other side and been able to do so if I hadn’t made those sacrifices first. On the flip-side, If you don't make the sacrifices now, your panic disorder will gradually deteriorate and it'll become much more difficult to overcome it further down the line.
3. Focusing on Individual Symptoms
Another mistake I see people make is trying to treat each individual physiological symptom that comes their way, be it: IBS, headaches or pressure in head, chest pains, acid re-flux etc. These are not separate illnesses; we haven’t all just been handed terrible luck in having loads of illnesses, at the same time, it would be quite a coincidence if we did. The reason for all these physical symptoms or illnesses is the anxiety. If you have acid re-flux, then you can get specific medication, but that won’t necessarily work as your acid re-flux isn’t caused by a damaged esophagus, and if it is I can bet your anxiety caused the damage (although we will never know). The same goes for your IBS; you haven’t just all of a sudden developed IBS, it’s a symptom of your anxiety.
Okay, imagine we do actually solve one of the issues with some type of medication, not that we aren’t taking enough medication already, what happens when you get a new physical symptom?(because you will if your anxiety doesn't improve) Are you going to take tablets for that too? What if you get another? How many tablets will you be taking, which all have side effects?
The only way to prevent all these individual symptoms is to treat the underlying anxiety. In my experience, once I began to reduce my levels of anxiety, all of the other issues slowly disappeared.
4. Measuring Anything Physiological.
I see many people frequently asking on social media something along the lines of… "My blood pressure is X/Y is this normal?" "My heart has been 179.5bpm for 2 hours and 12 minutes, should I be concerned?" "Should I go to the hospital?" If you ever post something like this, everyone knows it's almost always anxiety, but we can't ever say so just on the very unlikely it’s something serious and they don’t want to be the reason you didn’t seek medical attention; no one wants that on their shoulders. As a result, everyone will reply to you with something like “I think its anxiety but get it checked out first" or even "Go to the hospital immediately”. Obviously, this will worsen your anxiety, and guess what, your heart rate and blood pressure readings will look even more abnormal, ironically re-enforcing your anxiety.
Naturally, when we panic, our blood pressure and heart rate usually increase, often dramatically. Therefore, during a panic attack or severe anxiety, our readings are obviously going to look really bad. So why check?
All that the readings will tell you is that you are panicking, which you already knew. Rather than this helping, it's going to make everything much worse. Leave the testing to the professionals. Get checked out first, by all means, but then stop measuring things. If you don't, you will start constantly checking your heart rate and blood pressure daily, maybe several times until you become so obsessed you can’t stop. (Remember panic attacks are a symptom of OCD)
5. Trying Medication BEFORE Therapy.
This is not our fault. When we go to the doctors or to a psychiatrist, it seems more often than not, that the first thing we are prescribed is medication. I know doctors are supposed to always know best, and who am I to know any better? but seriously, most doctors are very ill-prepared to handle mental health problems, this isn't their fault either. How can someone without any formal training, and therefore knowledge of mental health problems, help, in the space of 5 minutes? As a result, doctors often prescribe medication as there is nothing else to offer you, therapy will be a huge waiting list, there is no other alternative. This results in doctors prescribing anti-depressants and beta-blockers without informed consent. They don't mention the side effects or the withdrawal symptoms, they don't mention the chance of them working for you, again this is not their fault, it's because they don't know! They aren't experts in anxiety. A psychiatrist on the other hand, trained to administer drugs...I wonder what they will suggest?
Therapy should ALWAYS come first. This isn't down to some philosophical reasoning such as "we shouldn't need to put anything manufactured into our bodies and should be able to cope alone." This is because therapy, especially CBT therapy, is proven to be the most effective way of recovering from a panic disorder, it is much more effective than anti-depressants statistically, this is backed by tonnes of psychological research. Anti-depressants particularly are very hit and miss; they work for some people and don’t for others; they also have many annoying, and sometimes nasty, side effects; not to mention the horrible withdrawal symptoms once you decide to come off them. As mentioned before, medication can make you calmer, lower your heart rate, and increase the levels of certain neurotransmitters in certain parts of your brain, amongst other benefits, but they cannot teach you to overcome the fear of your physical symptoms, they simply attempt to eradicate them altogether.
Some people really do improve and and even appear cured of panic attacks by using medication; however, I would argue that this isn't actual recovery until they have fully come-off their medication for a decent period of time without any setbacks, only then will they have truly recovered. However, even then, some time down the line, their panic attacks may return. Why? Because they could experience a frightening situation and those physical symptoms will return and they would STILL fear them. Then the panic disorder loop could start all over again.
If you successfully overcome your fear of the physical symptoms, a panic disorder cannot come back, you’ve beaten it.
Despite my previous words of warning, medication really can help for some, especially when you need some respite through a really bad patch, but please, try therapy or self-help CBT techniques first.
6. Analysing Why Each Panic Attack Occurs
This is often fruitless and only feeds your anxiety; I will explain why. If you try to analyse why every single panic attack you ever have occurs, you are going to need a lot of reasons why they happen. By nature, panic attacks are often completely random and appear seemingly “out of the blue” so how could I possibly try work out why each one occurred?
Another reason why this is a bad idea is because you begin to get frustrated and worried that maybe deep down, you really are ill. Take this example, you’ve had a panic disorder for many years, then you decide to start eating healthily. You have a really healthy breakfast but then you have a panic attack afterwards. What went wrong? I ate a healthy breakfast so It can’t be that, I felt relatively calm before, it makes no sense! This quickly turns into, "Wait, If I wasn’t panicking, then surely there must be something physically wrong with me internally. See how this is likely to worsen the severity of your panic disorder?
For me, and I believe for most others, each panic attack usually just stems from the first one you ever had, the first panic attack that turned into a downward spiral which rapidly developed into a full-blown panic disorder, therefore none of the following attacks even have an individual explanation.
7. Their Recovery Isn’t a Priority.
Many times when I offer people an attempt to help or a chat, people are often very interested but can't fit it into their busy lives. Here is a common response to my invitation for free help, “Yeah sounds good, when I can fit it in around work and looking after two kids that is” I understand this totally but you can’t take care of other people or do your job well until you are mentally healthy. What’s more important than your mental health? What’s more of a priority, the company you work for making a couple of extra quid this year or to finally get rid of this constant feeling like you're dying or going crazy every single day of your life?
If you want to learn a method for how to gradually overcome panic attacks, see my other posts in the "panic attacks recovery" series.
If you're interested in peer support sessions, with me, for overcoming panic attacks, click "Peer Support" from the menu at the top of the page to find out more.
Thanks for reading.