Falling in love is celebrated in our favorite songs, movies and books, but falling out of love is definitely not. Break-ups aren’t pretty. They don’t come with their own soundtracks or instruction books.
Surviving the end of a relationship can feel dark and lonely – like you’re the only person in the world who has ever hurt quite so bad.
Places that remind you of your ex can hurt. Looking at their social media feed or rereading old text messages can sting. Facing the day without your former partner can make you feel sick to your stomach.
Whether you chose to end the relationship, were blindsided by its demise, or came to a mutual decision with your ex, you can be totally flooded with stress, anxiety and fear in the aftermath.
Breakups and Anxiety
Some people are surprised by how chronically nervous and anxious they feel after a break-up. Other folks don’t even realize they’re anxious until things build up to a boiling point.
And for some of us, the anxiety becomes impossible to ignore because it gets very physical. After exposure to reminders of the break-up- or even in situations where nothing obvious triggers it- we can start having panic attacks.
Panic attacks are unexpected, sudden anxiety episodes that create extreme physical reactions. It’s common to feel like you’re “losing it”, dying or having a heart attack.
During a panic attack, you may suddenly feel dizzy or lightheaded, short of breath, and shaky or sweaty. You might also have an irregular heartbeat, a choking sensation or nausea, or weakness and fatigue.
Some folks even feel chest pains or heartburn, tingling in their extremities, chills, hot flashes or muscle spasms. There can be a sense of doom, and a feeling of not being in reality. Taking all this into account, it makes sense that concerns about going crazy or dying commonly come up.
As if surviving a break-up isn’t hard enough, panic attacks can make you feel out-of-control, worried about your health and fearful of when the next panic attack will sneak up on you.
How to Manage Break-Up Related Panic Attacks
Even though they show up uninvited and seem extremely random, panic attacks always happen for a reason. There’s always been a trigger…somewhere.
If you’re having a panic attack, something definitely happened that felt threatening to your system – even if it was just a barely noticeable blip on your conscious radar. Even if hours passed between the trigger and your actual panic attack.
I.e. You were driving home from work and saw a car that looked exactly like your ex’s. You couldn’t tell if it was really them or not. This event triggered fear in your body. You went on with your day, but that resulting anxiousness simmered for hours under the surface, only to wake you up later in the middle of the night with a full-blown panic attack.
There’s a reason for the panic attack. And, just knowing it’s not completely random can help a little bit.
But if you’re experiencing panic attacks in the aftermath of your breakup, you need more than reassurance. You need survival tools.
So, here are some simple things you can do to start managing panic attacks today
1. Seek Medical Care
Since panic attack symptoms happen in your body and create intense physical reactions, they can really scare you about your health.
Some serious health conditions can mimic the symptoms of panic attacks, so it’s a good idea to see your doctor as soon as you start having symptoms. A check-up can rule out any medical causes.
A clean bill of health can also make it easier to recognize true panic attacks for what they are (allowing you to focus on these symptoms as being purely anxiety-based).
2. Call It by Its Name
In her excellent book Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, counselor and author Claire Bidwell Smith shared how common panic attacks can be after significant loss. While the focus of her book was on bereavement (the death of a loved one), we know that break-ups can also be significant grief experiences.
Smith interviewed Dr. Sanjay Gupta about panic attacks, and he recommended recognizing a panic attack for what it is and focusing on the truth that you are not dying.
I.e. “Ok, this is a panic attack. It will pass. I’m not dying.”
According to Dr. Gupta, if panic attack symptoms cause you to become more afraid, a vicious cycle of fear will create more panic attack symptoms. The way to break the panic cycle is to hit the pause button.
3. Use Calming Skills
Since fear is so body-based, grounding exercises like breathing calmly, going to a peaceful place, and focusing on your senses can help slow down the physical reactions that are powering the panic attack.
Calm breathing can help because it balances out the carbon dioxide levels in your body. Many of us hyperventilate during a panic attack (you may not even realize you are!).
Going to a peaceful place (I.e. walking outside, retreating to your car or office) can help you feel safe enough to focus on the present moment. During a panic attack it may feel like time is moving very fast and things are closing in.
In Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, Claire Bidwell Smith suggests going outdoors if your panic attack happened while you were inside (and vice versa). Dr. Gupta also recommends sitting down if you were being physically active when the panic attack happened (and vice versa).
Focusing on the present moment can also help. Talking out loud (to a friend) or singing (even to yourself) were recommended by Dr. Gupta. And using your physical senses be grounding too. Try something simple like placing a hand on your heart, hugging a friend or pet, drinking some warm tea or eating a piece of candy.
You might even create a “Panic Attack Survival Kit” to keep in your purse or desk drawer. Fill it with reminders (I.e. an index card that says “It’s just a panic attack, you’re not dying.”), chocolate or candy, photos of calming people, pets or places and sensory items (like a worry stone, a squishy stress ball, or your favorite aromatherapy roller).
4. Seek Treatment
If you are going through a breakup and have experienced panic attacks, talking to a counselor can help. A counselor can help you learn to manage your anxiety and address panic attacks so fear of the next one won’t control your life.
A counselor can also help you learn coping skills for grieving your break-up and going through your unique healing process.
Contact Modern Era Counseling today to get started with counseling for break-up related panic attacks.