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How to Handle Panic Attacks

It figures: I get clean and start having crazy anxiety attacks. But here are some sobriety-friendly remedies.

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By Sue Smith

03/08/13

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Until I got sober, I’d never had a panic attack. But after I quit drinking, out of nowhere I started getting floored by them. I had no idea what was happening. I’d be on the subway and suddenly have an existential crisis: What was I doing with my life? Why wasn’t I there when my dad died? Why did I sleep with all those randos? Those obsessive, pounding thoughts were always accompanied by shortness of breath and hysterical crying.

Eventually I picked up some tools and the panic attacks went away. But now, five years later, with things starting to go well in my artistic career, the panic attacks are back. I can hold it together while I’m performing but afterward I’ll burst out in tears and start hyperventilating. What the fuck?

Half the time when I’m feeling panicky, I’m just hungry and need to eat a banana.

Luckily for me, my symptoms are pretty mild. For others, panic attacks can include heart palpitations, hot flashes and nausea. According to Dr. Petros Levounis, director of the Addiction Institute of New York, “People who suffer from severe panic attacks walk down the street sweating, with heart palpitations, an overwhelming sense of doom and a preoccupation that they’re going to die.” 

If things are that bad, you should definitely talk to your doctor. But for less severe symptoms, try out a few of the following at-home remedies—recommended and tested by me, my friends and other experts—to get some relief and help keep you on an even keel.

HALT AKA “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.” Check in with yourself and see whether you’re feeling any or all of these things. Half the time when I’m feeling panicky, I’m just hungry and need to eat a banana. Angry? Call your sponsor to vent or work out to burn off the hate. Lonely? Get together with a friend for a coffee (but not more than one cup—see below). Tired? Go to sleep already!

Yoga Yoga has consistently helped me the most in this department—so much so that I eventually became a yoga teacher. I believe that feelings build up in different parts of our bodies, especially our hips, and yoga can help you experience them in a way you might not normally be able to. Lately I’ve been into aerial yoga, which uses a hammock to combine yoga and dance moves. I can’t think of anything more relaxing than laying in a little baby cocoon for 15 minutes.

Cardio Running fast while listening to hip-hop very loudly will drown out those anxious and panicky thoughts. Also, the endorphins help you feel less bummed. I recommend Nicki Minaj or Lil’ Wayne.

Meditation AA’s 11th Step is, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” This is the meditation step, and it can take many forms. The one I find the most accessible is simply sitting and breathing. Close your eyes, inhale, and exhale. On the inhale, say, “Faith”; on the exhale, say “Fear,” and watch your fear float away as it’s replaced by faith. You can also try counting to 10 on your inhales and exhales, and go back to one when you have a thought. (I usually don’t make it past three.) If you’re new to meditation, there’s an iPhone app called Meditate Now, with several quick, guided meditations.

Talk it out If you’re freaking out, it’s good to get it out. For AA members, your sponsor—or, for people in recovery outside of a 12-step program, a friend or family member—is a huge part of your support network. But they might not be able to help you with the underlying issues causing your anxiety, like a therapist can. A great resource for sliding-scale therapy in New York, for example is Washington Square Institute. Brooklynite Tom says, “Full-blown anxiety/panic attacks didn't start for me until year four in sobriety, and years four through six saw them ramp up to the point where I was having them every day. Talk therapy coupled with a yoga and meditation practice are now enough to curtail any anxiety I have, for the most part. I meditate in the morning and I'm happy to say I rarely have full-blown anxiety attacks any longer.”

Prayer I’m always shocked when prayer works—when I have the willingness to pray about something and then it gets removed from me. One thing that helps when I’m losing it is the Golden Key, which basically says that if you’re obsessing about your struggle, just think about God instead. Sounds infuriatingly simple, but it works. Find a prayer—or mantra or chant or whatever—that you like and, when you’re in a tight spot, keep repeating it until you calm down.

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