So what exactly are panic attacks? Well, strictly put, panic attacks are sudden and overwhelming feelings of fear and terror that can occur at any time and any place. Usually, a time before the first panic attack was influenced by continuous stressful situations that were leading a person to feel anxious. Those situations can vary from chronic stress, traumatic experience, to a long road of negative repetitive stressors, intense anger, the loss of a loved one, etc.
All the situations above have a negative effect on us, even if we don’t recognize it as alarming at the time. Accumulated stress and anxiety by default, have to find an exit point. Over time, each of those situations can cause a person to feel tense, agitated, anxious and hypersensitive.
As it is known, panic attacks affect more than one system in our body, so all those new feelings emerging, will cause a change in our physical, neurological and psychological system. The 3B’s (brain, body, behavior) are all interconnected, so trying to explain one without the other would be foolish. As our brain sends information to our body it influences our behaviour and with it, our emotions and reactions.
Where does a panic attack start?
Each person is different. Where one person can interpret a situation as stressful he or she may not react to it straight away. Meaning a panic attack is not directly tied to a situation a person is in at the moment. It can occur at any time without previous warning.
Let’s start with our brain. Our brain suffers changes during a panic attack. In our frontal lobe, the activity decreases, but in the Thalamus, the brain activity goes up which we experience as sensory overload or unusual perceptions. That means we start to interpret that situation as dangerous and we slowly start to panic.
That is a cherry on top for the Amygdala which is best known as the one in charge of fear.
In that moment Amygdala gets into Fight or Flight mode, which also influences our adrenaline levels to go up and introduce our bodily processes to go Flash mode. It is then, we start to react and notice those changes in our body like hyperventilation (fast heartbeat), sweating, nausea, chest pain, difficulties in breathing, feeling weak, dizzy and general loss of control. All these reactions have their own way of emerging in each person. Meaning some of the systems in our body will react more and others less, depending on how we generally are. So some people will have higher cardio vascular reactions – fast heartbeat, chest pain and having difficulties in breathing, while others will feel nauseous and weak, or feel pressure in their abdomen.
All these reactions have their own way of emerging in each person. Meaning some of the systems in our body will react more and others less, depending on how we generally are. So some people will have higher cardio vascular reactions – fast heartbeat, chest pain and having difficulties in breathing, while others will feel nauseous and weak, or feel pressure in their abdomen.
As we explained what happens to our brain during a panic attack and how it all starts, we connected it to how our body reacts. In psychology that is defined by psychosomatic reactions. The main definition of psychosomatics is “a physical disease that is thought to be caused, or made worse, by mental factors”. This is best explained by stress and anxiety.
When our brain’s chemistry reacts to a situation, our body gets into a hypersensitive mode, meaning it tracks all that is happening in it and we feel like we have no control. We start to get aware of how we breathe – in this case fast and we notice we are lacking air, which tells us something isn’t right and panic takes over.
The part we don’t realize during a panic attack is that some or all of the changes in our systems can take place outside of our conscious awareness which is scary to know. But since they take place in a matter of seconds it feels like a surprise when it really isn’t. That is a good thing and it means there are ways of seeing it come and preventing it. Which is all we want to learn.
Our behavior, on the other hand, becomes restless. As we feel like we are losing control, we tend to do one of two things:
One: we want to be alone, so that we don’t embarrass ourselves in front of people by having a panic attack, and let them see how vulnerable we are.
Or two: we seek out to be around people so that if something bad happens to us, there is someone who can help us get better.
Since how we act in those situations is completely individual as all anxiety and panic attacks are, there is no general formula we can give you to help you. Which is part of the reason why we wrote this article explaining what panic attacks really are. Because understanding those gives you back a little power you think you lost to them. But… and this is a big one:
We can teach you how YOU can help yourself!
The most important thing you need to understand before we begin is, you are not alone in this and panic attacks are something you can prevent.
By understanding your body’s emergency response. Like we explained before, although panic seems to occur instantaneously, it is not quite like that. Several events tend to take place within our mind and body leading up to a feeling of panic. If we slowed down this physical and mental process, we would typically find that a person’s anxiety involves a number of stages.
One of the first stages would be the ¨Anticipatory anxiety¨. What occurs during this part of the panic attack is that your body is just entering the panic phase and your mind recalls all the previous moments and experiences when you failed to handle similar situations. When that happens your body reacts to that previous experience as it was happening right now.
So naturally, we start asking crucial questions for this situation and saying negative affirmations to ourselves thinking we won’t be able to handle this situation (as we have proof from the past that we failed). So as we slowly enter into a normal situation our brain thinks ahead also telling us we will not be able to handle what comes next.
So between past and future, our body and mind react to two moments in time: what has happened before and what hasn’t even happened yet. So our body is not to blame here. It is genuinely responding to the mind in panic. This is exactly the entry point of our chance to prevent a panic attack.
By configuring our thoughts, images of the future and negative affirmations we say to ourselves. It is simple to say the overthinking and imagining what didn’t even happen in a negative way is causing our panic to grow. But we all knew that already 😉
Acknowledge Your Panic Attacks
Running away from it will only make you panic more when you see it is following you. That will only confirm your fears they are true, so why help your anxiety? By running away your mind will prepare for the crisis and the second phase – the flood of symptoms. So here is the sentence we all hate when it comes to panic attacks – breathe and stay calm. Yeah, I said it, you can hate me or you can actually take my advice.
As we talked about it above, after the brain comes to the physical symptom. This is also a second part of the panic attack where you notice the symptoms (fast heartbeat, nausea, dizziness etc.). Since we don’t have control in those situations our body starts to protect us from the danger ahead by changing all of its chemistry rapidly. That change is what we observe and start to panic about.
If we told you that during an actual danger all of this occurs the same but you don’t notice it because there is an actual crisis happening, what would you say?
How can you do that?
We explained how and why your panic attack will start to occur. Now that you understand the process, they don’t seem so scary.
The truth is a lot of people are blown away by the panic and the feeling of not having any power to control the attack. By learning to perceive and identify those first stages (anticipatory anxiety and the physical symptoms), you can regain your control in the matter. So what is the way to change your thinking?
Turn your negative thoughts into positive a.k.a. stop assuming there will be a negative outcome.
|Negative thoughts||Positive thoughts|
|1. I mustn’t let anyone see me panic||1. So what if they see me panic?|
|2. I have to avoid the symptoms||2. I can face the symptoms and learn|
|3. I must relax immediately||3. It’s okay if I am nervous|
|4. If I panic, everyone will laugh||4. If I panic people will help me|
|5. I can’t deal with this||5. I will deal with this little by little|
Here is the secret…
We give ourselves orders on what we MUST do and when we fail the panic increases.
We feel embarrassed when others see our vulnerabilities and that we don’t quite have our life together, well who does? The world we live in today is not such a nice place! Give yourself a break.
By now you will understand how anxiety and panic attacks work, so see it coming. Breathing slow for about a minute will tell your mind to calm down on its own, it will show it the danger is not real and there will be no need for the Fight or Flight mode.
Breathing normal will return your heartbeat to normal, eliminate your dizziness, return your sugar levels to normal and your mind will stop defending itself from a crisis that doesn’t exist.
So how do you do that?
Sit comfortably on a chair. Straighten your back and relax your shoulders. Wait for a few seconds. Then place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
Take a slow, but deep breath through your nose for about 4 seconds. You’ll notice that the hand on your chest barely moves and that the hand on your stomach rises.
Hold your breath for about 2 seconds. Then, exhale slowly through your mouth for about 6 seconds. Try to empty your lungs, but don’t force anything. Again you’ll notice little movement in the hand on your chest. The hand on your stomach, however, goes down as you exhale.
Repeat this process for a while, and focus on breathing slow and deep.
So now that you have a full picture we believe you can start your own adventure of preventing panic attacks. An important thing to remember:
No one expects you to change a long-standing attitude overnight. But if you continue working on this, and not putting way too much expectation on yourself you will see changes each time you face a panic attack. With that, your confidence and image of self-worth will increase and you will get motivated more and more.
Soon you will see yourself overcoming panic. But if in some case you feel you don’t want to deal with this alone, there is no shame in asking for professional help or reaching out to someone. Nobody will judge you for wanting or asking for help, in our opinion, you are brave for doing so.
At the end of the day, it is your own life you are trying to make better.