COVID-19 has caused a global-crises worldwide. The familiar world seems on the point of shattering; gatherings and events have turned to social distancing; holidays abroad, travelling and weddings have been cancelled, office work has been shifting to teleworking, schools and university have closed down and lectures have shifted online.
The familiar of what was a couple of weeks ago, is now characterized with continuous uncertainties. What was once considered stable and forming part of our routine is changing with the evolvement of this pandemic.
Human beings react differently in crisis situations, however one of the most common experiences in crisis are panic attacks. The DSM-5 describes panic attacks as a sudden rush of intense fear or intense discomfort accompanied by the presence of 4 or more of various physical symptoms including palpitations, difficulty in breathing, chest pain or discomfort, trembling, choking, excessive sweating and dizziness. Panic attacks can emerge as part of several forms of anxiety or mental difficulties, traumas and even medical conditions. The frequency and the intensity of panic attacks varies according to the individual.
As a therapist, I have supported clients healing through panic attacks. As a human being I experienced panic attacks myself. Panic attacks strike suddenly. In a brief yet intense period of time, the person undergoing a panic attack feels an intense rush of anxiety and fear that becomes an agonizing bodily experience. The person might feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and loneliness even if surrounded by people. The fear experienced by the person undergoing a panic attack becomes debilitating. The fear is so intense that the person feels as though they are going to die.
In our modern times, panic attacks have become almost a common experience for all of us. We experience panic attacks because of stress related to exams, a situation related a stimulus or a traumatic event. However, panic attacks during a national crisis such as the pandemic of COVID-19 are far more common and could take place for each one of us. The following are some strategies that could support us in moments you might be experience a panic attack.
Recognising the symptoms of a Panic Attack: Panic attacks have an intense bodily experience. By recognising that you are having a panic attack and that you are not choking or having a heart attack, you will be able to start calming yourself.
This will Pass: A Panic Attack usually lasts between 5 to 15 minutes. Knowing that you are having a Panic Attack you can remind yourself that this will soon pass and that you are going to be OK.
Breathing exercises: During a panic attack, the breathing could either accelerate or else there are moments were the person completely stops breathing. It is important that we learn to take deep breaths through our nose and out through our mouths in a slow and paced manner.
Grounding Position: During the panic attack our body can be our ally if we use it correctly. The environment can post a lot of distractions for a person undergoing a panic attack. Thus, it is important that the person closes their eyes and focuses on themselves and the points already mentioned. The person can also sit down on a chair with their feet touching the ground or if in a safe environment they can sit down on the floor with their back to the wall for containment.
Point of reference: Some people found helpful to ground themselves by focusing on an object that usually is meaningful to them. This can be a necklace, a ring, a key chain or any other object meaningful to the person. By focusing on the object, the person will be able to start moving away from the symptoms of the panic attack and ground themselves through the positive memories triggered by the chosen object. This can be done with eyes closed or open depending the person’s choice.
Know yourself: If you start identifying the moments and triggers of when your anxiety starts escalating into panic you can support yourself before the panic attack takes place through breathing and grounding exercises.
Reach out: Reach out to a friend, a family member or a colleague. Sharing one’s experience, with a trusted person supports the person to feel less lonely and thus the panic attacks will subside. In this time of crisis, we need to support each other. Anxiety and panic attacks are common experiences during these times. You are not alone. If you feel you need professional help, please do reach out to various services including the Counselling Unit at the Health and Wellness Centre. We are in this together.
Ms Elena Borg
Health & Wellness Centre | University of Malta