Many people use the term 'panic attack' loosely, describing an episode of minor stress. However, for some, the word is not just a figure of speech but a very real condition, which manifests itself through a physical reaction, that might include shallow breath and shaking. Those symptoms can easily be mistaken for something else, and worsen the panic attack. The first step to help yourself is to recognize what you’re going through, but even once you do, it might feel like the situation is just out of your control. It’s not. One simple way to regain control over your body is through regulated breathing, according to experts.
While there are quite a few breathing techniques that are useful to practice in different situations, one that was proven to be helpful during panic attacks, in particular, is tactical breathing or combat breathing. It is a method of diaphragmatic breathing that is often used by military personnel who are placed in very high-stress, panic-inducing environments. Many testified that practicing tactical breathing helps them focus, get in control of their emotions and thoughts, and manage stress in a matter of seconds. Because of the high success rates of this technique, it is now officially taught as part of the US military training.
It is important to understand what happens in our body during a panic attack. When we encounter a threat, our nervous system springs into action - it releases high concentrations of adrenaline to help us stay alert. This causes the heart rate to quicken, which sends more blood to the muscles (this can sometimes cause shaking). Your breathing becomes fast and shallow, to prompt you to take in more and more oxygen. Your senses become sharper, and blood sugar spikes.
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If you needed to confront a dangerous situation that requires physical activity, like running away from a grizzly bear, those bodily changes would have been advantageous. But during a panic attack, the body goes into alert mode for no ‘actual’ reason. There is an unconscious communication that occurs between the mind and the body, where the mind sends a message saying “guard against this feared situation!”.
It could be the result of a recollection of a past event; the mind creates an image of the traumatic occurrence and instructs the physical body to act as if it is happening right now. It could also be a reaction of worry and fear from an event that has not yet occurred, but the mind questions your ability to cope with such a situation. These questions lead to an instant instruction to the body: "Guard against any of these worst possible outcomes.
In any case, managing those physical symptoms is crucial, and will help you calm yourself significantly faster.