How to Cope with Panic Attacks during Divorce
If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack during divorce or otherwise, you know how terrifying and unsettling the experience can be. Let’s explore what a panic attack is, the symptoms to watch for, and tips and tricks for overcoming one if it happens to you.
An episode of intense anxiety or fear
Mayo Clinic defines a panic attack as an episode of intense anxiety or fear. This definition attributes no “apparent cause” of the fear. It's a short but very intense physical episode. That said, if you’re getting a divorce and have a panic attack, you probably have a pretty good idea where your distress is coming from.
Panic attack symptoms
In addition to the intense fear that accompanies a panic attack, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Shaking or trembling
- Shortness of breath
- Throat tightness
- Muscle tension
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Hot flashes or chills
- Numbness or tingling
- Heart pounding or palpitations
You might also feel detached from reality – as if, at some level, you’re not fully aware of where you are or what’s happening in your surroundings.
How long does a panic attack last?
The intensity of a panic attack may last 5 to 20 minutes – but when you’re in the throes of it, that small increment of time can feel like an eternity.
Panic attack vs. panic disorder
Whereas anyone could have a panic attack, not everyone has panic disorder. Mayo Clinic states that a person who experiences recurrent and unexpected panic attacks – and who quite possibly spends time worrying about when the next attack will occur – may have panic disorder.
We can’t provide you with a personal diagnosis, but we can confirm that divorce stress is common … and it can definitely make you feel overwhelmed and drained. The intense emotions of divorce could lead you to have one or more isolated panic attacks even if you don’t have a panic disorder diagnosis.
What to do when you have a panic attack
So, what can you do to help yourself get through a panic attack?
In the midst of the attack, you may feel out of control of your emotions and behavior. Your body’s fight-or-flight reflex has been activated, causing adrenaline to surge through your body. But there are many panic attack hacks to try, some of which we explore below. Keep these tricks to keep up your sleeve in case a panic attack happens to you.
Hyperventilation is a common panic attack symptom that can actually amplify your body’s fear response. “Square breathing” is a method you can use to help calm your breath. It works like this:
- Visualize a square in front of you, or look at an actual picture of a square. Allow your eyes to slowly trace the perimeter of the square.
- As your eyes trace the first side, inhale for four seconds.
- As your eyes trace the second side, hold your breath for four seconds.
- As your eyes trace the third side, exhale for four seconds.
- As your eyes trace the fourth side, hold your breath for four seconds.
- Repeat this sequence several times.
5-4-3-2-1 sensory exercise
This sensory exercise is meant to take you “out of your head” and into the physical world around you. First, look around the room (or wherever you are). Pay close attention to the large and small details of:
- Five items you see (notice color, shape, texture, lines, and anything else you can see)
- Four items you can feel with any part of your body (examples include the feel of furniture beneath your fingers, clothing next to your skin, and the breeze on your face)
- Three things you can hear (fan rumbling, street traffic, television, footsteps, and so on)
- Two things you can smell
- One thing you can taste
Note that the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise may not work as well until you have calmed your breathing. You may be able to achieve this with square breathing or another deep breathing exercise.
Cold and hot
Similar to the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise, activating your sense of touch with hot and cold water can distract your mind from its overwhelmed state and ground you.
- Turn on a sink faucet.
- Run cold water for 30 seconds, immersing your hands in the stream.
- Switch to hot (or as warm as you can stand) water, immersing your hands in the warm stream for 30 seconds.
- Repeat this several times.
Another idea is to hold an ice cube in your clenched hand and allow it to melt there. Pay attention to the sensations as it melts and water flows down your arm.
Soak a washcloth in cool or cold water, and place it on your forehead or the back of your neck.
Simply taking a warm, soothing shower can help.
Other potential panic attack hacks
Some people swear by the soothing effects of essential oils like lavender. Light a scented candle, or inhale the scent of your favorite essential oil bottle.
Keep a supply of sour candies (think Sour Patch Kids, Warheads) on hand to suck on.
Although physical activity may help, be mindful of how you’re feeling. If exercise makes you feel worse rather than better, stop.
If you’re able to calm your mind enough to fall asleep, a nap may break your cycle of panicked thoughts.
If your physician has prescribed an as-needed anti-anxiety medication, keep a dose nearby. Consider tucking a dose in your purse or wallet for times when you’re not at home.
Suggested reading: 4 Ways to Protect Your Physical and Mental Health during Divorce
Preventing panic attacks
If you’re going through a divorce, your situation will always be on your mind to some extent – when driving, working, eating, and just trying to just live your life. So, how do you calm the inevitable stress and prevent potential panic attacks that may come with your current life situation?
Although you may not be able to completely rid yourself of anxiety, many self-care practices can help smooth out some of the rough patches.
You don’t have to join an expensive gym just to ward off potential panic attacks, but finding time for physical activity can certainly help. Life is probably busy right now, but try to make some time to take walks, dance around your kitchen, or perform relaxing stretches or yoga. Your body and mind will thank you.
Divorce therapy with a practitioner you like and trust can help you process issues you’re struggling with, whether it’s grief over the loss of your married life, anxiety about your future, or stress related to child-rearing and co-parenting issues. As you work through these issues, you may find yourself feeling more in control and less vulnerable to the “fight-or-flight” responses embedded in panic attacks.
At Hello Divorce, we help people at all stages of divorce: before, during, and after. For this reason, in addition to our other services, we offer certified online divorce coaching. Spending time with a divorce coach can help you feel more in control of your situation regardless of where you’re at in the process. They can be your advocate, your confidant, and your partner in brainstorming and planning each step of your divorce process. Click here to learn more.
Your mental health and well-being are of utmost importance during this difficult time. If you’re struggling to make time for yourself or aren’t sure what to do to feel better, download our free self-care worksheet for more ideas and tips. And remember: You are worth the effort it takes to feel better … and life is going to improve.
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