What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is the name given to a set of physical and emotional symptoms that you experience when your brain mistakenly identifies something as a ‘threat’ to you. Your panic attack occurs when you are given a stress response in a situation that you do not need it.
Panic Attack Self Help and Treatment
The recommended treatment for panic attacks is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy; CBT. CBT is an excellent model for addressing the thought processes that occur with panic attacks, and also is extremely useful in helping you change behaviours that may keep your panic attacks going.
However, many people and this could be you, have panic attacks that just come out of the blue, and I would personally recommend having an understanding of your brain, in addition to CBT. I say this because there are different routes in your brain that can result in panic attacks and I shall explain this to you once I talk about the cause of your panic attacks.
In order to choose the right treatment option for you, you need to understand what causes your panic attacks.
What causes panic attacks?
Panic attacks can be caused by;
- your amygdala
- anticipatory anxiety
- underlying medical conditions
How to stop panic attacks
If you want to get over panic attacks, you first need to understand the cause of your own panic attacks. This will allow you to select the best treatment that will work for you and you can read about this below.
Panic Attacks caused by your amygdala
Many people experience panic attacks that just occur out of the blue, or in similar situations, that do not necessarily involve anticipatory anxiety. If this is you, it is probably your amygdala. I shall explain what sort of treatment you need in a minute, but I better give you an example first.
Example of amygdala based panic
Lets say you keep having panic attacks in the car (or in a lift, or plane; the same places.) If a therapist tries to work with this using your thought processes alone, it may not work, as your amygdala is not logical.
Your amygdala acts first and thinks second. This simply means that if you are in danger (ie. your brain detects a ‘threat’) it will not wait to protect you while you rationalise whether or not you are in danger. It activates your fight or flight response first, just in case, to prepare you for danger, as it is better to be prepared than risk being harmed.
If this is you, and you want to stop having panic attacks, you need to retrain your amygdala to let it know the car (lift or plane, or whatever your trigger is) will not harm you.
Your amygdala learns from experience. If you keep having panic attacks, and do nothing about it, your amygdala will keep activating your stress response in situations you do not need it; you will keep having panic attacks.
Panic Attacks caused by anticipatory anxiety
Anticipatory anxiety simply means you are worried about something that may happen in the future, such as “what if I have panic attack;” you anticipate something bad happening, or see the worse case scenario. Being afraid makes up a large part of anticipatory anxiety.
The difference between anxiety and panic attacks
If you have anxiety, you can feel it rising, almost like a build up. Although the feelings associated with anxiety range from unpleasant to very uncomfortable, you are able to cope with them much better than the feelings you get with panic attacks.
With panic attacks, you have no warning before you experience a series of extremely intense and distressing, physical and emotional symptoms. I had panic attacks myself, and that last sentence does not describe it well enough for me, so I am going to explain what a panic attack feels like!
What does a panic attack feel like?
One minute you are going about your business and the next, you might break into a sweat, your heart is pounding out of your chest, it’s getting hard to breathe.
This is a panic attack, but it can be different for different people.
You might feel like someone has placed a cushion over your mouth and nose, where it feels like you are getting smothered or suffocated, even though there is nothing over your face. This is something I personally experienced each time I had a panic, so I feel for you if you get this. It does go away; I have not experienced this for years.
You are terrified and convinced that you are not breathing, there’s not enough air getting into your lungs. ( I used to put my finger beneath my nostrils to get reassurance that there was still air going in and out!)
You check your pulse, and it may be rapid, or you might not be able to feel it at all.
You are shaking, sweating and feeling complete and utter terror as you might be having the thought (maybe for the first time in your life) that you are actually dying. You could also feel pins and needles, numbness and/or tingling anywhere in your body (this used to bother me a lot in my arms and legs.)
You may have had different symptoms, but if you have had a panic attack, you will be able to relate to what I have just said.
You could very well end up in hospital and get a series of tests, to be told
“It’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with you. You just had a panic attack.”
If you are very accepting of this information, or if it gives you some sort of relief or explanation regarding what has just happened to you, you may never experience an attack again, or as severe.
More than likely though, it is very hard for your brain to understand, that what you have just experienced, is “just a panic attack.”
The published material is the author’s opinion and meets the accepted scientific standards at the time of publication, but science is constantly changing and therefore HumanPerformancePsychology.com can not guarantee that the information is complete, current, or error-free; the material is not and does not substitute for medical and psychological consultation; so use this material for information only and not for self-diagnosis or self-treatment – if you have any doubts about your health – contact your doctor and psychologist.
*For other questions – ask the author.
*The material presented may be further modified.