Panic and Anxiety Disorders
"Go easy on yourself. Whatever you do today, let it be enough." ~ Unknown
First things first: A panic attack is your body’s fear response. With panic, fear itself has become the problem. A fear response to certain things is completely natural. No different than a happiness response. An anger response. A sadness response. It’s another normal, natural response that your body and brain are literally built for. Racing heart, hyperventilation, lightheadedness, sweaty palms, and all the rest of it. You were born for it.
The most played-out example is that if a lion was chasing you, this is the response you would need from your body to survive. And it’s true. All of these things happen to get your body moving and into safety. No time to sit around and digest your last meal when you’re about to become someone or something else’s meal. Therefore, not only is panic not dangerous, the whole point of it to protect you from danger. That’s why we have fear in the first place.
In fact, what happens to your body during panic, the fight-or-flight response, is really no different than what happens when doing intense exercise or something else very activating and exciting, whether it’s dancing or playing sports or singing loudly to music. The difference is just that with panic the mind interprets these feelings as something bad.
So what’s the problem? People who repeatedly suffer with panic attacks may get diagnosed with “panic disorder.” All this essentially means is that these people have panic attacks frequently, they worry about and fear those panic attacks, and they may start to have larger issues in their life because of it, such as avoiding certain places or activities. There are many other people who have panic attacks who never develop these issues. They seem to brush off the panic as just being due to stress or something else. And they move on. They may never even think of it as a panic attack in the first place, even though someone else might say it is if they felt the same thing. People who come to fear panic attacks feel and think that they are going to die, go crazy, have a heart attack, faint, be embarrassed, or some other bad outcome. You can see how cultural beliefs play into it, as well, because whereas in one case a person fears a heart attack, in another time and place a person fears that a demon is taking them over. The mind is trying to make sense of why these strong feelings are present, and if you don’t have something obviously scary or dangerous around you, it just makes up some reason.
Lots of research in psychology shows that the brain will often literally just make up a reason why we did something to rationalize it to ourselves and others, even if it was driven by completely different factors, which usually are outside of our conscious awareness.
In short, our brains are amazing lawyers. They rationalize things after the fact. Whatever the contents of those thoughts, people suffering with panic come to be anxious about the sensations associated with getting panicky, and begin to increasingly feel and believe that this signals impending doom. Therefore, someone with panic disorder, who has an ongoing issue with panic attacks, has developed a fear of fear. Of course, being scared to get scared isn’t the most calming thing in the world, and is likely to perpetuate itself. And this is what happens. The fear turns on itself. Now, all of the usual factors that play a role in mental health apply to panic: genetics, brain processes, personal history and learning, stressful life events, and so on. Anyone who is more prone to fear and anxiety will be more likely to struggle with panic attacks. But in the end, it’s a learned response, just like any other phobia.
Panic sufferers have learned to be afraid of their tight chest, any sign of dizziness, their heart beating, and any situation or thing that will bring those feelings on.
Panic Attacks are Normal. Panic attacks are very common. Some estimates say that up to 4-5% of Americans experience them every year. And the percentages are similar in other countries. That’s millions of people who go through this everyday. So it isn’t something rare or unusual. And in fact, if we keep in mind that it’s essentially just a fear response, then it isn’t surprising that so many people experience this.
The whole label of it being an “attack” is misleading, too. That’s like saying you’re having a crying “attack.” These are just regular emotions that sometimes happen when we don’t expect them to, whether due to stress, or whether we have overlearned them and it has become a kind of automatic emotional response to a variety of situations.
Therapy for Panic Attacks:
There are various types of therapy for panic attacks. One of the most useful may be exposure therapy. Exposure therapy involves intentionally confronting fearful stimuli directly in order to overcome the fear. There is a large body of scientific evidence showing that exposure works for anxiety and fear problems, including panic. The basic idea is to face the fear fully, and then the brain gets a chance to relearn new ways of relating to that object of fear. Over time the response changes, and the things that once were fearful to a person can start to feel more neutral and manageable (and in some cases even becomes something positive and enjoyable). With exposure-based approaches, the effects tend to be long-lasting, because it’s all based in the fact that you’re actually learning a new pattern, or set of patterns, that get instantiated in the neural networks in your brain. Just like learning how to ride a bike, or write your name, or do any other kind of task or skill, the new learning can become automatic enough that when you feel panicky feelings they simply doesn’t bother nearly as much anymore, if at all. And from there you’ll be more open to new possibilities in how you think and act in the world. And while exposure is a scientifically solid approach to dealing with panic, other types of therapy can help, as well. Several useful tools can go in the panic toolbox and leave you well-equipped to handle these difficult thoughts and feelings.
Therefore, between the various options, panic attacks are something that, despite how scary and overwhelming they can be, are very treatable with the right help.
Don’t stay stuck in panic mode and allow it to keep shrinking down your life and your world.
Seek help, and sooner rather than later you can be living a full, meaningful, and enjoyable life beyond fear and panic.