A Panic Attack! A brutal mix of fear, anxiety and panic to create an intensely overwhelming experience that will leave a person immobilised when it happens. Scientists are not 100% sure on why people experience panic attacks, but they have drawn some conclusions on what, in the external environment and the internal environment may trigger such an attack. As a life coach I have learnt that our brains are highly complex machines and can often activate areas such as the amygdala (fight/flight area) that can create a sense of anxiety and fear, even though there are no signs of threat posed on the individual. Although slightly uneasy, the average person will quickly be able to assess the situation, understand that there is no threat and then begin calming down. To a person who is prone to panic attacks, this situation can be completely different. Their amygdala will become hyper-sensitive and over-activate the nervous system associated with survival instincts, which will bring on a panic attack. They will experience intense waves of fear, terror and panic as they face some consciously unknown force. Although the initial attack may only peak for 10 minutes, it can leave a long-lasting and sometimes debilitating emotional impact on the person.
Panic Attack vs Panic/Anxiety Disorder
There is a general difference between a person who has had a panic attack and a person who suffers from a panic/anxiety disorder. If a panic attack is a once-off event, or happens very rarely and doesn’t affect the persons emotional stability on a long term basis, then they are seen as someone who doesn’t suffer from a panic disorder. However, since the memory of a panic attack can condition the brain in such a way that it perceives many(or certain) situations as a threat, if left untreated, could lead to panic/anxiety associated disorders. Panic attacks can be triggered in people who have no issues and are happy with life. And likewise can come on when a person has a social phobia (such agoraphobia and claustrophobia) or depression. It is crucial to seek help if the frequency of panic attacks begin to increase; You start worrying a lot about when you may have another attack (this can lead to anticipatory anxiety); or if your behaviour begins to change due to panic attacks (such as needing to avoid places and circumstances in the fear of triggering a panic attack and the embarrassment of having an attack in front of people), then you may be experiencing a panic disorder.
When working with a life coach, they will inform you that the signs and symptoms develop very abruptly during a panic attack and are felt when the sympathetic nervous system activates hormones and bodily responses to confront the threat it is facing. Symptoms such as shortness of breathe, heart palpitations, dizziness, tunnel vision, hot/cold sweating and a choking feeling may be felt. Since the fight/flight response is activated, the person will want to get out of the situation as quick as possible as they may feel there is no escape. The situation can take on a surreal feeling and seem as though the person is experiencing the moment outside of their body. Often, powerful feelings of imminent death will be felt and it will seem like they are going to die. Although not life-threatening, there are many reports of people being rushed to the hospital, thinking they are experiencing a heart attack due to chest pain, heart palpitations & difficulty breathing.
Severe stress, such as a death in the family, post-traumatic stress, job loss and divorce can become triggers for panic attacks. Aside from emotional stress, physical imbalances can create conditions suitable for panic attack such as hyper-stimulation from substances like amphetamines, cocaine & caffeine and withdrawal symptoms such as when someone stops their medication or gives up an addiction. Organ and hormonal imbalances are also found to cause an attack such as Mitral Valve Prolapse (which is a minor cardiac disorder that doesn’t allow the hearts valves to close correctly), Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland) & Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
An unchecked disorder can have a severe effect on a persons self-confidence, their ability to relax, ruin their social life and can lead to further disorders, so again, it is crucial to seek help before it becomes debilitating.
What To Do During A Panic Attack
In life coaching we find that the first thing that the body will do is go into survival mode which shuts down clear thinking and prepares the body to run, fight or freeze. Since it is very difficult to think clearly when this is happening, it will be best to role-play a panic attack in an environment where you feel very safe and possibly with a trained professional. If this is practised enough, it will be set-in in the subconscious memory where it will be easier to retrieve during a real attack. The same can be seen in sport, self-defence classes, police training etc. They practice for the event so that when the actual event is playing out, they almost instinctively know what to do.
So getting back to What To Do During An Attack.
Step 1: When you feel it coming on (It will come on fast), recognise that it is an attack. Acknowledge to yourself that a panic attack is happening. Before your mind gets too foggy/confused. This is very important.
Step 2: Safety! If you are in your car, pull over. If you are standing, try sit or lean against something like a wall. Don’t rush any movement. Just do so as calmly as possible.
Step 3: If someone is near, ask them to assist you and notify them what is happening (most people are willing to assist). If you don’t want to be touched and need space, let them know as well. Tell them to remain calm, but be present in case you need them. This kind of conversation also helps you stay in control and works well to keep your survival instincts at bay.
Step 4: Breathe deep! When a person feels threatened they will breathe fast and shallow. Fear, terror and panic are powerful forces to contend with, so you must breathe deep in spite of what is currently happening. When you breathe deep, you are trying to trick the brain into thinking the threat is gone. Note however, that the attack will be in full force because various hormonal releases are streaming through your blood stream and influencing your brain and nervous system. So even though you are taking all the right steps, you must still remember that this attack/process will take some time before it comes to an end.
Step 5: Know that you will survive this! You will not die. This is a moment in time and although it is a very difficult moment, you will survive this. You are brave in spite of the fear…. Ps. Once the attack has come to an end, remind yourself of this statement again, because you will have first-hand knowledge and experience that you have survived this.
Step 6: Stay in the moment. Don’t try to resist what is happening and wish it wasn’t happening because that will create more fear, which will lead on to further panic. Tell yourself: “Yes, this is happening and yes, I am scared. However, I also know in my heart that it will come to an end. This I know is true!”
Step 7: Breath De-e-e-e-e-p…. Inhale slowly…. Exhale slowly… Repeat.
Step 8: Surrender to the experience. This may seem counter-intuitive because you brain will not want to surrender, but try allow yourself to surrender. Breathe deep and say to yourself: “I surrender to this experience. I know no harm will come to me.” Breathe deep… and surrender. Remember, the more you resist, the more it will persist. This is such an important part of over-coming such a powerful force. You cannot fight. It thrives when you fight it. The way to win this battle is to surrender to it. This is a truly brave and courageous step because you cannot out-run fear. It will swallow you up if you resist it. All you can do is surrender to it. When you surrender fully, you may even find that the deepest part of your fear, anxiety, panic or terror was actually just a scared part of you trying to protect you against danger. At our deepest level, we always to do what is best for ourselves, so we may be protected from danger and kept safe.
Step 9: All the above may go out the window! Yes, unfortunately, all your prep work may vanish during your attack and your survival instincts will completely take over. This may feel like a major let-down, but I promise you, you will be more prepared for the next one. Remember that babies fall many times before they can walk. It okay to fall. There are no greater lessons that real life experience.
(If you are male, use a mans perspective. I have chosen to use a female for the example.)If you are prone to panic attacks, this exercise may help quite a bit. Find some time when you can be alone, safe and quiet. This is a visualisation exercise, so I want you to visualise yourself when you are having a panic attack. What do you see eg: a scared girl hiding in a corner. Then visualise all aspects of what you feel the attack aspect (from a panic attack) will look like. You may see this as a scary monster trying to kill you. Now the point of this exercise is to find the gift in the situation.
A panic attack will be triggered by something, so the body tries to protect you by performing certain functions. These functions however, are very instinctual and will over-stimulate the needed systems which will make a person feel out of control, which will lead to stress, which will further lead to anxiety, fear, terror, panic etc. So try to understand that your body is trying its best to look out for you. Its not trying to hurt you. Its trying to protect you… In its weird, distorted way. That is why Step 8 says you must surrender. The basic, primitive part of your brain is trying to protect you from something.
At this point your perception of the attack aspect may be changing slightly. Instead of a scary monster, you may now see a confused, slightly scary monster. Still scary, but you can see its also maybe a bit scared, just as you are. Its a very simple, primitive creature that sits in a dark corner of your mind and feels ostracised because every time it comes out to protect you from danger, you try to hide from it in fear.
Your perception may be changing at this point. You may even take pity on this poor creature. Here, with its simple thinking, tries to protect you from danger, but at the same time seems to scare the ba-jee-bers out of you.
Look at the scared girl, how does she now feel about this monster? Has her body language changed? Yes, she may still be scared, but do you see a difference?
Now ask the girl what she feels when the attack starts and what actions she normally takes to protect herself. Also ask her when was the first time she can remember such an attack. See what responses come through.
Now visualise yourself as the scared girl as if you are seeing through her eyes. Look at the scary monster and acknowledge its presence. Thank it for trying its best to protect you when you were scared. Apologise for not understanding its simple manner and motives.
Now visualise yourself as the monster who is looking at the scared girl. Acknowledge her presence and see how afraid she is. Look at how your actions impact her innocence. Apologies for mistakenly creating so much fear in her because this was never your intention.
Take as much time as you need during this process.
Now take an outsiders perspective on this situation. Get the feeling that there is a deep sadness from both parties involved. See that there has been a huge misunderstanding and a lot of unacknowledgement. Feel the love that is starting to come through between these individuals. Now see the scared girl approach the scary monster and slowly wrap her arms around its big, goofy body. This process melts both their hearts as they deeply understand that they are one and the same. See how the scary monster wraps its arms around the girl in a gentle, secure and safe embrace. See that both individuals are both aspects of yourself just trying to get by in a strange, confusing and crazy world. Both are only doing what they think it right with the limited understanding and knowledge that they have at this present moment.
Life is filled with bumps, hurdles and many unexpected curve-balls in-between. We can only learn from the great mystery of life. I believe that many of our deepest fears contain within them, pearls of wisdom. And if we can discover these pearls, we can not only change our lives for the better, but help to change others lives. Sometimes it helps to know a life coach in your area.:)
Thanks for reading,
Donovan – Life Coach