Panic Attacks Explained
Symptoms, Tips, Treatment and Help
A Panic attack is an intense feeling of fear; a feeling of impending doom. Sufferers may feel that they are going crazy or that they are on the verge of a heart attack. Panic attacks may feel terrifying at the time but they are not dangerous; they are just a flow of adrenalin surging through your body. Adrenalin is the cause of all the symptoms you feel, like dizziness; racing heart; feelings of unreality; feeling out of control; hyperventilation and light headedness.
There have been many studies carried out about the cause of panic disorders and although the results are still inconclusive, in my experience and based on the studies of others, the main cause of the initial episode is due to a prolonged period of worry and stress. The body needs to release this built up energy and manifests itself into what is referred to as a panic attack; although I prefer to call it an energy release as this is what it really is.
The scary part for most people is that these feelings of panic don’t seem to come when they are in a situation of danger. They can come at any time of the day for no apparent reason. Unfortunately, what can keep people in the cycle of panic is the fear of having another attack and the avoidance that can go with it. They may have an attack of panic while driving and then associate driving with panic, thus avoiding getting back behind the wheel. In a few cases, people may retreat indoors as they believe that by doing this, they can avoid all the situations that may bring on an attack of panic.
Understanding how you feel
Understanding what is happening during an attack of panic can be the first step in moving towards recovery. An attack of panic, or adrenalin release as I like to call it, does not mean you are going mad or having a heart attack. This release of adrenalin cannot harm you in any way, no matter how you feel; it is something that always calms down.
Recovery involves using the right techniques and, again, understanding. If you understand what is happening, straight away you lose a lot of fear, and fear is what keeps people in the cycle. You may spend all day worrying about a particular event or situation, building up the worry throughout the day. Is it any wonder that when you get there, you feel anxious/panicky? You may feel the first symptoms of panic and create a whole host of ‘What if I collapse?’ and ‘Oh my God I cannot cope’. By doing this, you are adding fear to fear, intensifying your feelings of panic. I tell many people to try and stay calm in their attitude while feeling the first signs of panic; to allow the fear to be there and let it burn itself out. Contrary to what you may believe, your body can only produce so much adrenalin, so you will never go to the place of no return. Too much adrenalin causes the flight or fight mechanism that is there to protect us. This is why we feel the need to escape. I learnt to allow my fear to be there and almost welcome it to see what it had. I stopped looking for escape routes and stopped using safety behaviours to manage how I felt.
The stage you really need to get to is the stage where you no longer fear another attack; easier said than done when all you may have done so far is avoid and run away from how you feel. The technique is to go with the feelings of panic; to come out of your safety zone and try to see this energy surge through without trying to control it or put a stop to it. By doing this you are telling your body there is nothing to fear. Your body reacts to what you tell it and if you’re willing to let the feelings come without trying to put a stop to them, you may feel panic rise but it will not grow. It will not grow because it has nothing to feed on and this is what panic feeds on – fear. It feeds on all the “Oh my God I can’t do this”, “What if I make a fool of myself?”, “I need to get away”. You are telling your body that you are in danger and it reacts accordingly by adding more adrenalin and feeding your feelings of fear. A lot of people think that if they let panic come without trying to stop it or run away from it, something terrible will happen and they will reach the point of no return. Trust me, this place does not exist. This is what helped me to recover. Your instinct to run away during an attack of panic is a normal reaction, but you really need to go through the feelings of panic and move towards them willingly. All you fear are these feelings – FACT. It is not the cinema or the crowded shopping centre you fear, it is a fear of how you will feel when you get there. So, if you deal with yourself, no place will hold any fear.
When you start to move towards these feelings and understand that what you feel is just adrenalin and can do you no harm, then a little window starts to open and you start to gain some confidence. When I started to truly live again and no longer buy into my mind’s false fears, I realised there was no dark place in which I would collapse or lose control. I had faced my fears and although initially I felt uncomfortable (by the way, fear is uncomfortable – that’s a fact – and so I expected to feel this way) I found that nothing had ever happened, just a surge and then peace. I had stopped avoiding as this was obviously getting me nowhere. I am not pretending it is easy, but this is the way forward, I knew the only way to get my life back was to go out and live. No amount of knowledge could cure me, only living my life could.
Fear grows with avoidance, which follows the laws of how your mind works as your mind’s job is to protect you from perceived danger. So, if you keep avoiding something, then your mind will conclude that you still need its protection and will keep engineering the fight or flight response. It is up to you to teach it the opposite by using the only language it understands, which is your behaviour. If you stop avoiding and don’t try to escape at the first sign of feeling fear, then the mind will conclude that you are now fine in this situation and will begin to turn off its over bearing protection system.
My Own Suffering
My own recovery came one morning when I had just had enough of hiding away and my life was becoming more restricted. I just decided that whatever happened, nothing could be worse than the existence I was living. This fear response is hard wired into everyone, so although it felt uncomfortable, it could not be harmful; that made no sense. I basically just decided to live fearlessly and whatever came up, came up. I would not die, collapse or implode. The worst thing that could happen was that I’d feel uncomfortable and that I could handle if it meant having my life back.
Whenever my instincts to escape or avoid came, I would do the opposite. I realised that I had to override my mind’s false alarm and now teach it that I was OK. It could set the false alarm off if it wanted, but I was now taking control back for both our sakes. I had to teach it through my actions that there was no real danger here and I needed to help it understand this fact. It was my fault through avoidance that the mind had become so fearful of life and situations in the first place, so to lead it back I had to teach it that its fears were false, that I truly was fine and no longer needed its protection.
A lady once emailed me and said she could not possibly do this. She said she would collapse or go crazy. I replied “how do you know if you have never allowed yourself to feel this way and have always retreated?” She said “you are right” and the next time she felt panicky, for the first time she allowed it to be there. She was overjoyed that she had stayed in the situation and although fear rose, it then cut off to nothing other than mild anxiety. She said that for the first time in her life she knew she could come through. She realised that habit and memory may bring these feelings on for a little while longer, but she knew she could cope and that nothing bad would happen. In that instant she had lost so much fear of her symptoms and saw them in a different light. She no longer watched her body closely, tuning in to every bodily sensation and asking “Is this the start of another one?” but more ‘I don’t care if it is, I’ll be fine’.
Many people’s lives are dominated by the mind’s fears and I know how hard this can be. Letting fear come and trying to stay calm while your body rages around you is not easy, but there is no need to climb a mountain in one day. Little victories can add up and give you the confidence to try more, so you can start to broaden your life.
Instead of saying to yourself “I can’t cope”, I must get out of here” just say “I am fine, it’s just adrenalin. Nothing bad is going to happen to me”. If you’re planning to go somewhere, don’t fill your day/weeks worrying about it, just go and you may find that you do enjoy yourself and many of the fears you held came to nothing. The actual doing is never as bad as our over active minds make us believe. It is not always how you feel but your attitude to how you feel that can make all the difference.
I have seen many people overcome panic to lead a full and normal life. But there is no overnight cure and avoid paying out to anyone who claims there is. Also, don’t put all your faith in a new tablet or pill; recovery does not come this way. It really is all about knowledge and an understanding of how our body works and reacts. It is not about getting rid of fear, but understanding it so that you no longer fear it and then it does not hold any power over you. The book goes into more detail on the subject and with the right understanding and a little courage from you, recovery is achievable, I have seen it too often to say otherwise.