A tight, constricted throat, a pressure in your chest that feels as though your lungs are being crushed, clammy palms, an erratic, pulsating heart and lightheadedness that stops your eyes from focusing properly; if you’ve been unlucky enough to have had a panic attack or have read any of the many accounts of them online, you probably recognise the symptoms. I’ve experienced anxiety attacks for as long as I can remember - though I only realised that’s what they were in my early twenties, when rather than simply feeling hot, faint, dizzy and sick in certain situations, my breathing became affected, chest tight, and I finally twigged what was happening to me.
But what’s less documented is what happens after; either because not everyone feels this way or perhaps because, once it’s over, you’re OK - so why dwell on it? But living with panic is not only difficult because of the onset of the attacks themselves. After a recent spate of anxiety, I realised it wasn’t so much the anticipation of having one, nor the having one itself that I was struggling with most (after all, I’ve read the books, had the counselling, and know what I should do in that situation whether it works or not) but the state I was in afterwards. Drained, exhausted, emotional and always shivering uncontrollably, after a panic attack it feels as though my body has gone into shock; shut down, and given up on me until I can have a good sleep and try another day. I’ve dubbed this the anxiety ‘hangover’ - like an emotional jet lag, the comedown from all those heightened sensations that leaves you feeling a little broken and spaced out.
The body is beautifully designed to meet the ‘fight or flight’ need, but only once in a while. Take a look at any mental health forum and there are hundreds of posts from sufferers who feel the same, and who are even concerned that those after-symptoms are something to worry about (and so the vicious anxiety cycle continues). But it’s just the body’s way of dealing with what’s happened; Lucy Beresford, author of Happy Relationships: at home, work and play explains what’s going on during an attack. "The body is preparing for ‘fight or flight’, so it releases hormones such as adrenaline, increases blood pressure, dilates the pupils to receive more light (and therefore more information about the situation) and accelerates breathing. The body is also focusing on what could be an emergency, so blood is carried away from the stomach to the major muscle groups such as legs for running or arms for fighting.”
All very well if you’re in a situation that might require you to fight it or leg it, but when you’re standing on the tube in rush hour it’s the last thing you need. "The body is beautifully designed to meet the ‘fight or flight’ need, but only once in a while,” Lucy agrees. "Too many dramatic changes or too much adrenaline sloshing through our system too often is draining, causing fatigue."
It stands to reason that this rush could make you feel ill, as Chloe Brotheridge, hypnotherapist, anxiety expert and author of The Anxiety Solution explains: “Adrenaline has a number of functions, one of which is directing blood flow towards your muscles and away from functions not needed during an 'emergency' (of course, in the case of an anxiety attack, it's a false alarm). If less of your body’s resources have been used on digestion and your immune system, it might lead to feeling a little more run down and could affect how your tummy feels. Adrenaline also mobilises a lot of glucose and energy which can leave you feeling drained and exhausted afterwards."
Prolonged anxiety or regular panic attacks can have longer-lasting effects too. "Anxiety can cause sleepless nights, which impairs our ability to function,” explains Lucy. "It can even make you so frightened of having an anxiety attack in public that you start to become withdrawn, avoiding social situations or particular places, or even being frightened to leave your room or your home. People who often experience panic attacks often also suffer digestive problems due to the fact that blood is constantly being pumped to areas other than the stomach."
The problem is, as with any mental health issue, you can’t necessarily get under the duvet post-attack and give your body time to get back to its ‘normal’ state; there are jobs to be done, trains to be travelled on, people to see, who as much as they try, don’t always know what to say or do.
What can be done to recover quickly when you’ve just been through an attack?
How to recover after a panic attack
1. Keep warm and shake it off
Firstly, keep warm (although if you’re hot and bothered, fresh air will help too). Hyperventilating can make your blood flow less effective and if you’re anything like me, you’ll feel freezing after the attack is finished - and the shakes will only make you feel worse.
Much of anxiety is due to a feeling of no control; which is why it’s helpful to remember that our breathing is a bodily function that we can take back control of if it’s out of whack. "Focus on your breathing, such as inhaling, holding for a count of five, and then exhaling,” advises Lucy.
Your body might feel physically exhausted from all the tension, too. "During times of high anxiety we tend to tense our muscles up - it's part of our defence mechanism - and it might be that your muscles are sore after an anxiety attack,” explains Chloe. "I'm a fan of the good old Epsom salt bath; the warm water will help you to unwind while the magnesium in the salts is a natural muscle relaxant. Pop some drops of essential oil, like lavender, in there too."
And as for all that extra adrenaline you don’t need? "Do something physical, such as go for a walk, to work off all the ‘fight or flight’ responses.” It’s true - all that energy needs to go somewhere, so get it out of you any way that you can for a speedy recovery. Walk it off, or even try shaking it off.
2. See it as a sign that you need something
While the fear of another attack can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, the attack itself can leave you feeling low - when what would really help is to see it as a sign that you need something. "One of the worst things about anxiety is the sense that we won't get better, or that things are getting worse. I remember feeling like I was a failure after an anxiety attack, and berating myself that I should be better. I believe this is a big part of the anxiety attack hangover,” Chloe tells me.
"Even if you've been on a path to recovery, an anxiety attack might feel like a setback and another reason to beat yourself up. If this is the case, try to remember that progress isn't linear; it's a process, and that with time, help and support and giving yourself lots of TLC, things will get better. I believe that anxiety has a message for us, it's often saying 'pay attention to me', 'look after me', or, 'things need to change!'. Is your anxiety trying to tell you something?"
3. Talk to yourself kindly - and maybe also to a professional
Your body might be trying to tell you something, but sometimes it helps to talk back. "Create a mantra, such as ‘this too shall pass’, to say to yourself when the anxiety attack seems like it’s overwhelming you,” says Lucy, a trick I regularly use in the midst of a panic. It’s all temporary; telling your body it’ll soon be back to normal can really help make it so.
Chloe agrees that your inner voice is important when it comes to recovery. "Be kind to yourself. How would you treat a friend or a child who was unwell? I'm sure you wouldn't give them a hard time and tell them to pull themselves together, so don't do it to yourself."
However, if anxiety is becoming a regular fixture in your life, it may be time to chat to your GP or a counsellor instead - check out charities such as Anxiety UK for more information on the help that's available. The after-effects of panic may be far-reaching, but if you can address the cause head-on then you can say goodbye to the symptoms once and for all.
How do you feel after a panic attack? Let me know in the comments and share your coping mechanisms with us