What Are Panic Attacks - The Cycle of Fear
What Are Panic Attacks
Panic attacks are extremely common and are very treatable. They can be cured. Although my program has coping strategies its aim is to cure you completely. This may take time, there are no quick fixes. The best laid plans are those with solid foundations.
I will teach you things that will give you a firm solid base before you tackle the more difficult challenges. For example I would not tell you to jump on a plane to Australia at the beginning of the program if you suffer from a phobia of flying. But there are relatively simple changes you can make that will make a dramatic difference to your life almost immediately.
What Is A Panic Attack
‘Panic attacks are periods of intense fear or apprehension that happen suddenly and can last minutes or hours. Panic attacks usually begin abruptly, may reach a peak within 10 minutes, but may continue for much longer if the sufferer had the attack triggered by a situation from which they are not able to escape’
The above described me well when I was suffering from panic attacks. How about you?
For me at the beginning there would be a sudden feeling of impending doom and complete fear. I would feel as if something bad was going to happen. I would often search for exits encase I needed to escape. My heart would pound in my chest so I could feel it and my breathing would speed up. I would tense my muscles especially my lower abdomen. I would try and force myself to take deep breathes as I felt I needed more air. This only caused hyperventilation (which we will discuss later,) then I would suffer heart palpitations which scared me even more. I would often cross my arms to hide the fact me belly was tense and jolting. My legs would feel they were going to give way. I would have lots of different negative thoughts such as my heart was going stop or I would flip and go crazy.
I couldn’t seem to pinpoint what was happening to me I just knew something was wrong. One of worst feelings was my eyes would feel like someone was sticking a red hot pokers in them. I found using a computer or watching TV would induce a panic attack especially after I had consumed alcohol the day before. Also my head would feel like it was stuck in a vice and someone was contracting it.
As a rule of thumb if you feel four or more of these symptoms then you are likely to be experiencing anxiety or a panic attack, (remember a panic attack is just extreme anxiety) -
- Palpitations, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- Feeling of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- De-realization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- Fear of losing control or going insane
- Sense of impending death
- Paraesthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
- Chills or hot flashes
In addition to this tinnitus, neck soreness, headache, and uncontrollable screaming or crying, sensitivity to light or noise are diagnostic criteria for a panic attack.
If you’re experiencing these symptoms then accept you have panic attacks and anxiety. When I first started experiencing panic attacks I thought I had some deadly disease. What made things worse was I did not know what panic attacks were. I did not know anyone who had suffered from panic attacks. If somebody had asked me the definition of anxiety I probably couldn’t have told them!
The Cycle of Anxiety and Panic Attacks
The Panic/Anxiety cycle produce both physical and psychological symptoms. The physical sensations are real but are normal and completely harmless. Everybody experiences fight or flight reactions sometimes, it’s part of daily life and it’s actually your body trying to protect you rather than harm you. It’s nothing more than a false alarm. I can assure you that even if your symptoms persist all day, they will never do any harm to you. I can totally empathize with you how terrifying and frightening they are. It’s the fear that keeps the panic attack cycle alive. Once you take apart every symptom with a factual scientific explanation and disempower it, you will see the panic for what it really is – A FALSE ALARM
I have deliberately in my program not talked about how terrifying panic attacks are. I’m guessing by the fact you are reading this that you have experienced at least one. If you are reading this for research, or to help a friend or relative, then please read my story and the symptoms of panic attacks. They are completely frightening and scary. I would put them up there as one of the most stressful situations in a person’s life. The fact that you may have experienced multiple panic attacks every day, perhaps over many years, is a testament to your courage. For others it may have simply become too much and they have become house bound (agoraphobia). I want you to know I completely understand how you feel. We are all members of an exclusive club that we don’t want to be in!
Why are panic attacks so scary?
Probably the scariest part of a panic attacks is knowing that you should not be frightened to death but this inner fear is flowing through your body and you don’t know why. I often scanned around my surroundings and thought there is no threat here and yet my mind thinks I have an AK47 pointed at my head! Therefore I tended to think of other reasons why I was feeling so panicky that tied in with my symptoms. The racing heart became a heart attack; the pounding head became a brain tumour, etc. Worst of all I thought if I told friends that I was feeling this way they would disown me. Therefore it became my big secret that I was ashamed of. The few people I did tell really had no idea about this condition and the terrible effect it has on your physical and mental wellbeing.
I started to avoid certain situations where I was experiencing anxious feelings. I was also trying to fight the fear using sheer grit and determination which was a mistake. I started to make excuses for not doing certain activities as it was just easier to not put myself through the torture of trying to hide it. I now know avoidance behaviour encourages the negative thoughts. However at the time my behaviour seemed extremely logical to me.
Panic attacks typically start in young adulthood although they can start at any age. There is evidence to suggest they run in families meaning there may be some genetic link. They also tend to happen to women more than men. Generally people who suffer panic attacks have above average intelligence and a sensitive nature. A common personality trait of anxiety sufferers is the lack of assertiveness in their life decisions. This typically manifests itself with the person being polite and respectful because they do not want to offend others. Their behaviour would be non-confrontational.
So why do panic attacks come out of the blue? They do not; typically there are two main reasons.
- There is usually some prolonged stress that causes an overload of the body’s nervous system. It could be physical like childbirth, body trauma, etc. Or emotional like a bereavement, losing a job, divorce.
- The body is run down due to the person not eating properly, taking drugs, etc. and the body cannot cope with the stress it’s under.
These factors can lead to the body chemistry changing and the person becoming over sensitive to situations they once enjoyed. This can lead to the flight or fight response being triggered giving all sorts of unpleasant symptoms such as the heart beating faster, shaky legs, feelings of fear, etc.
If the person then internalizes these sensations and starts to worry about them, the symptoms are magnified. Often people experience anxiety at different stages in their life. For example teenagers with eating disorders will experience panic attacks, an overstretched office manager or an elderly person who has been burgled.
If the person ignores their symptoms and their stress levels drop and they start taking better care of themselves, the body has an amazing ability to recover and return to a more balanced state. However some people do not take note of their body giving them warning signs. They continue to not look after themselves and they start making very negative assumptions about their symptoms. The person starts to self-medicate with alcohol, and they go from the doctor to the internet looking for answers. The person worries in silence and the sensations intensify. The circle of panic is then engrained and they are forever stuck in a cycle of panic, fear and anxiety. If the person had only heeded their bodies warning signals from the start, they may have been able to recover quite easily.
If you listen to most people they will tell you that they recovered by improving their diet, resting more, not worrying and having a more positive outlook on life. Sounds easy doesn't it!
Well I can assure it’s a lot easier to get into this, then get out of it. When your body is run down and your thought patterns are so negative, you need to work so much harder than everybody else to feel good and bring your body back to a balanced positive state. It can be a very frustrating and uphill task. Some days you will find you are not making any progress whatsoever. I can assure if you follow the Golden Rules in my program, you will succeed and be a far more positive and contented person than you were before you had this condition.
Why panic attacks are different from simple phobias?
There is an important difference between simple phobia’s and panic disorder. A simple phobia is extremely common and it affects almost everyone. I bet if you ask people on the street most would admit to being afraid of something - spiders, heights, public speaking, etc.
With panic attacks the fear comes from within. There is no external thing (although the sufferer may think there is) which is causing the fear. What the person is actually suffering from is the fear of having a panic attack in the situation, and what might happen to them. Although you can state you have panic attacks when you see a spider, climb heights or undertake public speaking, it’s the fear of having the panic attack in that scenario rather than the actual environment. Dr Claire Weekes was one of the first to recognize this and I thoroughly recommend you read you read her book Self Help For Your Nerves. It’s the complete bible for understanding panicky feelings.
The treatments are different……………
If you were to have a fear of heights after being stuck high off the ground on the big wheel at a fair ground, the rehabilitation program would be simple. You would gradually be exposed to heights until you built up your confidence again coupled with relaxation techniques.
If you have a fear within of your inability to cope, then this is different fear. This fear can spread to other areas. Let’s go back to the fairground ride example. If you’re stuck on the fairground ride again and you started to experience a panic attack, it’s quite possible you don’t understand what a panic attack is. You probably wouldn’t know how to deal with it and be bewildered by the experience. You then might start to feel panicky in other situations. For example if you get into an elevator you may start thinking negatively about getting stuck inside on the 13th floor. Then you might to start to think about the next time you go on a plane that something might go wrong, etc, etc.
Do you see it’s not a simple fear of a situation, person or creature. It’s a fear of fear itself. It’s the dread of not being able to cope with your own anxieties.
If your friend is afraid of spiders and you show them picture of a spider they would probably be scared. If you show a panic sufferer a picture of a supermarket it will not evoke any fears. With a panic attack sufferer they know that walking into a busy supermarket will not hurt them but they’re afraid of the feelings and sensations when they enter. This is a different kind of fear.
Tip from the trenches
Many doctors will use medication to help you go back to places you have experienced panic attacks. In some areas there really isn’t an alternative on the NHS and medication is seen as a quick chemical fix. My program does not advocate this approach. I will discuss medication in later posts, but it simply masks the feelings and when the medication is stopped there is a high probability you will relapse. Use medication by all means but don’t rely on it as sooner or later you will need to stand on your own two feet.
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