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How to Beat the Panic Attacks At Their Own Game
A panic attack is truly one of the most uncomfortable emotional states a person will ever feel. Like most emotions, panic is not a feeling isolated in the mind, but one that brings with it an armoury of physical symptoms as well. Unlike other emotions, panic`s physiological companions can be so potent that they almost become more powerful than the emotion itself. When people feel angry, they may notice their clenched teeth, tense shoulders, or maybe even a vague throbbing in the temporal regions of their head. But first and foremost, they notice their rage. A panicking person, however, will almost undoubtedly become so overwrought by the intensity of the physiological pandemonium set off in the body that the emotion seems minor in comparison; so much so that if frequent and repeated panic attacks are experienced, the person may start to fear the fear itself.
What are panic attacks?
A panic attack is state set off by the body’s sympathetic nervous system (that which is designed to activate the body’s resources for coping with stress) when faced with a situation that is deemed by the person (either consciously or subconsciously) to be physically or psychologically threatening. It results in the sudden and intense experience of a variety of emotional and physical phenomena:
- Extreme fear and feeling of dread or impending doom
- a compulsion to flee or escape the situation
- bodily symptoms including: dry mouth, dizziness, light-headedness, blurred vision, ringing in the ears, racing heart/palpitations, shortness of breath, nausea, diarrhoea, and weakness of extremities.
Typically, panic attacks only last a few minutes, especially those that are severe, but they may last for much longer or come and go repeatedly throughout a day if the cause for the panic has not ameliorated.
When One Attack Becomes A War of Attrition
Most people will experience one panic attack in their lives, for whatever reason. But for some, one attack leads to another, and another, until it evolves into full blown Panic Disorder. Panic Disorder is one that is characterised by frequent and repeated attacks that impair a person’s ability to function normally in their daily lives.
Facing the Foe
Panic, in essence, is just a fight or flight response – it prepares you to either face and fight the perceived danger, or turn and flee from it. For those spontaneous, erratic, or infrequent panic attacks that come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly, fleeing the situation may not be such a bad thing. But if panic attacks become recurring, flight will not only fail to solve the problem – it may make it worse. Repeated attempts to escape the situation (assuming it is an imagined threat, and not REAL physical threat) only leads to avoidant behaviour, which brings along a whole new set of problems for the person. For example, if a person frequently experiences panic attacks while standing in the queue at the grocery store, he or she may then avoid shopping during busy times. If there comes a time when that person must shop during a busy time, then he or she will become crippled by the dilemma – go without groceries (i.e. food!) or risk panicking.
There is a better way to beat this adversary. What I am about suggest may sound controversial to anyone who is currently suffering from panic attacks, but one that is accepted by most Cognitive-Behavioural Therapists (CBT) as the best and most effective way of overcoming recurring panics: FACE THE FEAR.
Not at all easy to do, but immeasurably important in the fight against fear. For people with recurring panic attacks, there is usually an underlying fear that some catastrophe will happen to them if they don’t flee: they will be humiliated and lose respect from those around them, they will faint and no one will help them, they will die of a heart attack, or (commonly) the panic will go on forever and they will end up going crazy. These imagined catastrophes only serve as the catalyst for further assurgent panic.
In almost all cases, these catastrophes never materialise. But that doesn’t mean that the threat of them potentially coming to fruition isn’t real enough to the person that they start to avoid the trigger at all costs. Which is fine, if the trigger is some rare and has little impact on a person’s life – say, like a dark alley or a viscious dog – but when the triggers become all-encompassing, avoidance can be severely debilitating. If a person panicked every time he or she rode an elevator or escalator, stood in line, walked through a crowd, signed his or her name in front of someone, spoke in front of a group, etc... avoiding these things would severely interrupt his or her ability to enjoy life.
Not only that, but when the panic does fade after the person leaves the situation, it begets a false sense of security that the panic went away BECAUSE the person fled. When in fact the truth is, the panic would have left anyway.
Facing the fear helps the person to realise that the very worst of his or her threats was one of imagination and not reality. Riding the panic attack out, only to realize that it came to end, that you did not die, and that you did not embarrass yourself as much as you predicted you would (or you lived through it!), is probably the most effective cure there is for panic. Other remedies may work briefly, but in using them a dependence is often created, leading to a gamut of other issues. Your ability to look panic in the face and say “Bring it on!” is your strongest artillery against your foe. If you no longer fear the fear itself, then it will slowly retreat, knowing the battle has been lost. Because most times, it is that fear (of fear) that keeps panic coming back, over and over again.
I am oversimplifying my point here for ease of reading. To get into all the details of this technique would not only bore you, but would become overwhelmingly complicated to the lay person when it needs not be. Quite simply, facing panic in the way I have described is a technique called Exposure Therapy, which achieves very good results for a variety of anxiety disorder and phobias. However, this technique should not be attempted without the guidance of a good therapist, especially if you suffer from chronic, severe, or complicated anxiety or panic. But if you have longstanding or recently new, but intense panic problems, this technique is something you may want to discuss with your therapist.