What’s Wrong With Me? The Logic of Panic Attacks
By: David Lechnyr, LCSW
Panic attacks can be overwhelming and exhausting, leaving us feeling out of control. You can feel your own heart beating in your chest, you start feeling numbness or tingling in your arms or legs, and you suddenly find yourself afraid of going crazy, dying or possibly losing control. This cycle can grow and become a vicious circle from which it seems as if there’s no escape. Understanding what is happening and the fears behind panic can help us to better control ourselves.
So, what causes panic attacks? As hard is it is to hear, you cause it! Nothing outside of you causes it. This is the unfortunate reality of what actually ends up happening. To combat this, we need to understand something about the different stages of anxiety and panic attacks.
The Surge of Adrenaline
After experiencing external anxiety, you worry about your body’s feelings and symptoms, and end up thinking about them too much. This causes your body to sense fear, which releases chemical stimulants into your body and it gets it ready for flight or flight. As adrenaline, sodium lactate and cortisol are released, your anxiety increases. This releases more stimulating chemicals into your body.
Bodily Sensations & Fear
Now the second stage of panic and anxiety starts. You no longer are concerned with the external, actual problem. You focus on the weird feelings and strange symptoms that your body is experiencing. You start to wonder, What is wrong with me? This leaves you more confused, lowering your defenses, making you even more sensitive, and raising your sense of panic and fear of losing control.
The Body Responds to Fear
The next stage of anxiety is that one’s breathing becomes more shallow and faster. You get a feeling that one can’t get enough air. Your brain might tell you that you need more air. Actually, you need more carbon dioxide and less air. What’s happening is that there’s an imbalance in your body between oxygen and carbon dioxide. As hard as it might be, you actually have to slow your breathing down. Try to hold your breath, focus on your heart and focusing on relaxing the organs in your body. Sometimes it helps to breathe into a small paper bag for ten minutes (while not fun, in 10-15 minutes you will feel much more relaxed).
We Don’t Slow Down
The next stage of anxiety is where we put ourselves under time pressures in life. We rush around, become impatient with ourselves, and so forth. All of this causes our body to release all the chemicals (as above) all over again and start us down the road towards another panic attack.
One of the contributing factors for our panic attacks can be the presence of too many stimulants in our body. This includes caffeine (coffee/tea), energy drinks, sudafed, and certain stimulating medications. These can all potentially make us hyper at times, especially when we are tired. Your body and mind can only maintain a state of anxiety for a few hours at the most. After that point, you become fatigued and depressed.
Focus on Change
Remember, you will not lose control nor will you go insane! It takes time and lots of practice to stop fear and anxiety. Be kind to yourself. You will figure it out in time! Change requires a focus on working hard to change our responses to stress and anxiety. It will take daily work to reduce your stress and worries, over a long time.
Physical Factors That Can Make You Prone to Anxiety
Knowing the above factors allows you a way of understanding what you are doing that makes your anxiety worse. We do know that anxiety attacks, or panic, can easily be “set” in humans even after just one experience of being overwhelmed. This one time can set a “habit” and now can become automatic and your body can respond this way on a regular basis.
Some people have “Anxiety Sensitivity” which suggests that some people are more prone to anxiety and panic attacks because of fact that they are just more “sensitive” types of people. Being “sensitive” can be an asset and allow you to be intuitive, creative and bright. However, this asset can also be a liability because you tend to “pick up” too much and may not know how to “filter out” some things that you should not pay attention to. Anxiety sensitives also tend to “feel things” more acutely, and at lower levels, than others making them very sensitive to things that happen around and to them. Anxiety sensitives also have an increased “high autonomic arousal” where their automatic nervous system quickly responds–much faster than others–like they are in a crisis and it “warns them” that something is happening.
Having a high arousal potential can be good and bad. It can keep you keyed up unless you learn to focus what you are doing and filter out some things. We do know that those people with an “excessive autonomic nervous system arousal can quickly change and be quite reactive to any stimuli. We also know that those people with panic disorders have a sudden and consistent relative drop in cerebral-vascular brain blood flow with just movements of lying down to getting up. This may make one feel “strange, dizzy, see ‘stars’, or feel faint” thereby bringing on a sense of panic. This is only temporary and will are turn to normal in a very short period of time if you don’t panic over it.
Some people have a “mitral valve prolapse” problem where a valve in the heart does not function properly causing “skip beats,” “thuds,” “rapid heart beats,” and an increase awareness of one’s heart. This is not serious and you will not die from it. However, it can make people prone to panic attacks.
Knowing these physical factors can help you feel in, and regain, control over your body, fears, worries, etc. It helps to explain more what is going on with you. You are not crazy or going to die. Something real is happening but you can control and manage it better with the following points and the above knowledge.
Instability of the Autonomic Nervous System
The Autonomic (or “automatic”) nervous system operates by itself and is called upon when the person has to deal with any crisis. It is designed to “get the person ready” to handle the situation by “sending adrenalin,” and other chemicals, into the body to “activate it.” It can cause a large number of seemingly unrelated symptoms affecting many different systems of the body including one or more of the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath.
- Chest & muscular pain with no apparent physical cause.
- Migraine and tension headaches.
- Dizzy, spacey feelings.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Balance problems, vertigo (Dizziness).
- Insomnia, sleep disturbances.
- Hyperventilation, shortness of breath.
- Palpitation of the heart, skipped or irregular heartbeat.
- Panic attacks with pounding heartbeats.
- Hypersensitive startle reflex.
- Cold sweats.
- Cold feet and hands, tingling, numbness and tightness of of fingers and toes.
- Stomach Upset, irritable bowel syndrome.
- Diarrhea, constipation.
- Difficulty Swallowing.
When the Autonomic Nervous System is activated, it can trigger and amplify emotional and physical responses. Over time, the repetition of disturbing symptoms can cause a sort of feedback-loop that can “condition” the person to a “habit pattern” of responding and make the symptoms even worse.
People who anticipate the symptoms develop a dread and start to associate them with all sorts of situations, feelings and experiences. The person becomes so fearful of the symptoms that they “anticipate” them and become afraid to do anything. As a result, the panic anxiety attacks develop a “life of their own” and the person starts to wonder “what is wrong with me.”
This only makes them “more of a victim of the problem” where the person feels helpless. This only makes things worse because the only way to change things is for the person to “take charge” and start to develop a plan to regain control through learning to “manage the problem” rather than searching for “the cure,” which only keeps the person tense and anxious as they “search.”
7-Step Approach for Controlling Panic Attacks
- Admit that you are feeling anxious. Accept your body feelings as symptoms of your anxiety and a sign that something is bothering you.
- Try to figure out what is really bothering you. Is it some type of conflict that you don’t want to deal with? Is it a scary thought? Is it a ridiculous expectation you have about yourself? Was it a T.V. program you watched, relationship problem, normal bodily physical changes (which leave you more sensitive), etc. Avoid Stimulants-Caffeine, decongestants, rushing around, etc.
- Give yourself permission to feel anxious about whatever is bothering you. I feel anxious because…and it is OK to have anxiety. If you fight it the panic will only last longer. Flow with it and it will wash over you faster Allow yourself to feel weird for a the time.
- Use positive self-talk dialogue to talk yourself through the anxious time. It will pass. Say: it’s just anxiety. It will go away. I will not lose control. I can still go about my business feeling spaced out. It won’t hurt me. It is just energy that needs to be released. Learn to live in the Present Precious Moment, not trying to rush the future.
- Get busy. Do something to release this self-induced stimulation. Don’t just sit there. Walk. Run. Clean closets. But do something. Do anything that helps you to distract from the way your are feeling. However, it should be active–not withdrawing into passivity or sleep.
- See the humor in the way you feel. You might feel weird, but you don’t look weird. IT’S NO BIG DEAL. Just give yourself permission to feel weird for a little while. Everyone feels strange at times and they get through it. SAY: IT’S JUST ANXIETY, YOU ARE JUST EXCITED–it is more normal than you think!! Bright People are very sensitive and intuitive and need to learn how to manage this special sensitive-intuitive-awareness that can be a very positive asset.
Use your relaxation techniques twice a day–train your body to be more relaxed and less ready to get up and going tense. You are not crazy and you will not die!
Stop looking for “quick solutions” such a reaching for “the pill to solve it all.” Go with the flow and find self-care things to help you. It may take time but you are working on training your body and system to respond differently.
However, it is important to find a psychotherapist who can (1) take time to get to know you and your situation, style, symptoms; (2) be a guide and a mentor who can work with you; (3) is trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and knows the practical steps for dealing with your symptoms; (4) and is someone you feel comfortable with and trust. You also have to know that your problem has been there for a while and it may take a while for your to master what is needed to obtain better control and mastery over it all!
Trying to rush things will cause more problems. Take it step by step.