It’s one thing trying to improve your ability to control your own stress response so that you can combat anxiety and improve your health. But it’s quite another when you experience serious panic attacks that leave you crippled and that prevent you from engaging in normal activities.
But in fact the tools you will use to achieve both ends are similar. The difference is just that panic attacks might require a more intense and a more focussed approach.
And in either case, understanding the biology behind the experience can be a fantastic tool to help you take control more effectively.
Let’s look at what panic attacks are and how you can take them on head-to-head.
The Basics of Panic Attacks
When you experience any kind of stress, it’s because your sympathetic nervous system is releasing specific hormones and neurotransmitters into your system. Specifically, these are:
– Adrenaline (epinephrine)
– Noradrenaline (norepinephrine)
When these occur together, your experience of pain is dulled, you become more attuned to your senses, your thoughts are focussed, your strength increases your muscles contract. Your heartrate accelerates significantly and more blood and oxygen are sent to your muscles.
But the thing is that this increases your overall strength your reflexes and your ability to fight or run. This is a useful response in the right context.
The problem is when you misinterpret these signals and cause a panic attack. What happens in this case is that you notice yourself get anxious and you become worried that this is going to cause you embarrassment or make you faint (perhaps because you have previous experience with panic attacks). You begin to hyperventilate and this combined with the elevated heartrate causes chest pain. And some people mistake that chest pain for the signs of a heart attack.
All this makes you more anxious and that in turn means you ramp up the response even more. Your heartrate increases more, you get more anxious and eventually you might even start to get dizzy from all that oxygen.
The solution then is to recognize that you’re having a panic attack but not to give it any power over you. And the way you do this is to try and detach yourself from it and essentially continue to go about your normal business. Of course this is easier said than done but as soon as you stop letting it control you and as soon as you aren’t afraid of panic attacks, you’ll find they end a lot more quickly and eventually they can stop happening entirely.
Cognitive behavioural therapy can help with this, as can using the technique known as AWARE which is simply a set of steps to remove yourself from the experience and to avoid being afraid of the stress.
Most people will have a panic attack at some point in their lives but if you can understand what is happening and control your emotions you’ll find it can disappear as quickly as it arrived.