How to Handle Panic Attacks
(page 2)Caffeine intake If you’re like me, you’re a sober vegetarian who doesn’t smoke. Coffee is all you have left! When anyone tries to talk to me about my caffeine addiction, I’m like, “Back off!” But the truth is, coffee will mess with you. It’s a stimulant, which can increase your heart rate and intensify (and even trigger) panic attacks. New Yorker Heidi says, “I stay away from caffeine stronger than tea and I try to get enough sleep because when I’m very tired and overcaffeinated I tend to freak out way more easily.”
When I was newly sober, my panic attacks were so severe that I used Xanax for six months.
Acupuncture It may sound weird to have someone poke tiny little needles into your body, but Samantha Story, MS, LAc, says that acupuncture can help alleviate anxiety. According to Eastern medicine, panic attacks can result from a miscommunication between organs in your body. “Fear energy lives in the kidneys and can rush up and overwhelm the heart, which always wants to be in charge,” Story tells me. “Acupuncture can make sure everything in your body’s communicating effectively.” Every patient is different, and it can take three or four treatments to see changes—so don’t give up. After 9/11, the now-demolished St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan ran an acupuncture program, and its success in in helping victims feel calmer prompted the American Red Cross to add ear acupuncture to its 9/11 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Program reimbursable services list.
Essential oils Story also recommends smelling essential oils as an instant mood-changer. “Changing your sensory outlets changes your perspective,” she says. Certain scents affect people differently, but Story recommends lavender for calming, citrus for depression and rose oil for calming the heart.
Passionflower An herb (no, not that kind) that you can drink. Mix it with water, obviously, because it tastes like dirt. I’m really into it right now, and use it before going onstage to quell that panicky feeling. For me, two dropperfuls makes me fall asleep, but one is just right. Make sure to buy the alcohol-free version!
But what about pills? What happens when you have several years clean but you’re still having panic attacks? Marin of Minneapolis says, “I was sober for six years and I thought if I just worked the steps hard enough, slept enough and went to enough therapy, I’d be fine. I wasn’t.” There are many types of pills that help with anxiety—but I’m not a doctor, and you should always speak with your doctor if you're considering this option.
Benzos For sober people, there are good meds and bad. Benzodiazepines like Xanax, Klonopin, Valium and Ativan are extremely addictive and not the best option for people in recovery. According to Dr. Levounis, these drugs are “quite addictive and have gotten a lot of people in trouble.” He adds: “They activate the same neurotransmitter receptors in the brain as alcohol. Exposing yourself to them can lead to relapse.”
When I was newly sober, my panic attacks were so severe that I used Xanax for six months. I’d never been a pill-popper, so when my doctor suggested I try it, I didn’t see any problem. I took only half a pill when I felt my chest getting tight and my thoughts spinning out of control. It was great. But then—oops—I started to crave it. I had the twisted alcoholic thinking that, “If I give myself a panic attack, then I can have a Xanax.” No good. Just because I’d never had a pill problem didn’t mean it was too late to get one. So I put the ixnay on the Xanax ASAP.
SSRIs (antidepressants) Unlike benzos, SSRIs “do not have an addictive potential,” according to Dr. Levounis—although, as with any medication, they should still be monitored by a doctor. (You can also experience some wicked withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them, so be aware.) Specific antidepressants that have been recommended by sober people who’ve suffered from panic and anxiety include Lexapro and Celexa. Marin says, “Before I started taking Celexa, I felt like there was a hamster wheel in my brain. I had panic attacks once a month. Now I’ve only had two in the last two years. I don’t feel numb but it allows me to stay more in the moment and not spin out. My anxiety doesn’t take hold of me anymore.”
If all else fails, try Laughing Yoga. Or even just chilling out—literally. When New Yorker Kelly starts feeling panicky, she says, “I lay on the cool bathroom floor to rectify my skyrocketing body temperature. Then I attempt to walk it off.”
Sue Smith is a writer and performer in New York City.