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Panic Attacks 101

June 19, 2020

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We, teachers, have always been a fairly over-stressed, anxiety-ridden bunch. We’ve got a lot at stake, after all. Our jobs are more than jobs. We’re caring for and educating our own future leaders and fellow adults.

With the pandemic, social isolation, insecurities about when and how we will return to the physical building that is school, and budget crises nationwide, we have an entirely new set of worries and things to be anxious over.

Panic attacks can hit out of nowhere, and if you don’t know what’s happening, it can be particularly frightening. Here’s some information you can use if you’re struggling or for you to pass on to a colleague or even students should the need arise. 

What is a Panic Attack

The simplest way to describe a panic attack is that your body physically reacts to emotional and mental stress and anxiety. Usually, a person who has a panic attack has been experiencing heightened anxiety for some time, and their body reacts to this anxiety by kicking into survival mode.

Whether the threat is real (a virus, a change to your job status, or moving from in-class to remote learning - or back to in-class from remote learning) or imagined (What if every student in your class gets sick? What if you’re the only teacher on your campus who feels like they should wear a mask? Could you actually get fired for that?), your body reacts to that stress as though there is an actual bear in the room, ready to attack and eat you.

You switch from normal, every day “you” to the fight, flight, or freeze “survival mode” of yourself. 

Surviving: Step One, Recognize What Is Happening

Human bodies are pretty amazing. One of the many assets we have is that when we are in perilous danger, our bodies don’t wait for us to reason out what to do next.

Your body just takes over, and every part of you suddenly equips itself for survival.
All the oxygen that normally inhabits your extremities abandons those outer regions and moves toward your “flight” mechanism. Your muscles are ready to run, stand their ground and fight to defend you, or cram into the smallest space possible and freeze there in your hiding place.

Adrenaline flows more rapidly through your veins, and the world around you slows down. You may experience “tunnel-vision” or hyper-focus.

Here’s the problem: there’s not actually a bear in the room.

And your brain’s oxygen supply is one of the first to be depleted, so all your executive functioning skills and reasoning fly out the window.

Once you’ve recognized that you are not actually in immediate physical danger (do check - it helps, even if it sounds silly), tell yourself “I’m safe”.

Don’t skip this step. For one thing, when you’ve worked your anxiety up to this level, you’ve been telling yourself something negative. Your own personal poison will differ, but it’s often something like one of these phrases:

“I can’t handle this.”
“This is not going to be okay.”
“I am not okay.”
“These kids are going to be the death of me.”  Don’t laugh! We’ve all thought it from time to time!
“This job is killing me.”
“I can’t do this.”
“I’m going to get fired.” 


Stop that noise as soon as your realize it’s happening, and replace it with something simple and meaningful:
“I’m safe.”
“I’m a good person.”
“I’m okay.”
“I CAN handle this.”
“I can do this.”

Does that work? Actually, yeah! It does!

But to be clear, we’re not saying to deny that you have negative feelings or pretend that everything is always okay. We’re saying that in an anxiety or panic attack, you need to wait to visit those negative feelings and ideas until your body has gotten the message that it’s safe and you can use your executive functioning skills again.

No one solves the problems of the world in survival mode. 

Increase Your Oxygen

A very close second priority is getting oxygen back to your brain so you can think clearly.

Sometimes while having a panic attack, you will hyperventilate, feel like you’re having a heart attack, be overwhelmed by a sense of vague but impending doom, cry, shake, and think you’re dying.

And maybe you are. Maybe this is real and you’re having a heart attack. Call an ambulance if you must, or have someone start driving you to the hospital.

BUT while you do that, breathe.

In through your nose for a count of about seven.

Out through your mouth for a count of about eleven.

Keep doing that until your brain gets the built-up carbon dioxide out of your system and your brain has an adequate supply of oxygen again.

Don’t worry about tomorrow, or the next five minutes, and don’t try to repress whatever your body is doing.

JUST.

BREATHE.

Let Yourself Rest

Panic attacks are absolutely exhausting. You may be very tired for the next few hours to the next few days. Your body and mind have just survived an attack by a bear! Give yourself the rest you would need if you had a cold or some other physical illness.

Remember, just because it isn’t visible like a broken leg doesn’t mean your illness isn’t real. All the same rules for recovering from a physical illness apply - rest, comfort, and care. Sleep, stay hydrated, and eat healthy meals. Stay in bed, watch some movies, and invest in your health. 

Build Your Resilience

Just like we work to build and maintain our physical immunity, we can build our emotional and mental immunity.

You wouldn’t take a cold shower then run around in shorts and a t-shirt in the snow without expecting your body to react, making you susceptible to a physical illness.

You wouldn’t eat raw eggs, or go a year without bathing, or lick your classroom floor.

But many teachers do the emotional and mental equivalent of these things: they work hours that are too long, don’t get enough rest or exercise, and don’t eat or stay hydrated.

Good mental and emotional hygiene means attending to your mental and emotional needs just as you would your physical needs. You need to play, rest, and work for good mental health. You need healthy relationships, emotional support, and safety for your emotional health.

You need to be angry sometimes, just like you need to sneeze or go to the bathroom. You have to sit with your sadness, just as you would with a headache. Let those emotions happen and find the healthiest ways to take care of yourself and the people around you when you’re experiencing them. 


You’d never tell yourself, “No. No, this is just not the appropriate time for me to use the restroom. I won’t do it. I can’t. This is not the time,” for days on end. Why would you say the same, limiting yourself if you need a good cry?

Finally, take note of what makes you feel so anxious that it sends you into a panic or anxiety attack. What happens that interrupts the rest of your life and insists on being heard?

Is it the pain of rejection or the fear of not having enough? Is it the unknown? Is it frustration at the lack of control you’re feeling? No matter what the cause or trigger, acknowledging it will help you build resilience. Just as you know you’re getting a cold if you start sneezing and your throat hurts, you can also tell when your emotions start to spike that you are approaching the “panic” zone.

Once your body goes into survival mode, it’s over until you get through to the other side, but there are lots of opportunities to recognize and deal with your emotions before that point in ways that are less disruptive to your life, your teaching, and your classroom.



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