Panic attacks are brief episodes of fear that are so powerful that they trick you into believing you are dying, going crazy, or losing control. You might be surprised to hear that panic attacks are NOT dangerous at all. There are evolutionary reasons for experiencing panic sensations. When you are in a dangerous situation, the experience of fear sharpens your senses, quickens your thinking and activates your fight-or-flight response. When our fight-or-flight response is activated, we were more likely to survive and reproduce. While we now rarely are in dangerous situations (like a at risk for being attacked by a tiger), our anxiety response still ramps up when we perceive any danger, real or imagined.
The following are symptoms you may have during a panic attack and the initial reasons why:
Panic attacks can occur in the absence of a real physical threat. There are a variety of circumstances that can trigger your body’s panic response and initiate the symptoms above. For example, panic attacks can occur in response to social stressors, hardships at the workplace, or relationship struggles. They can also come “out of the blue”, or from a physiological change (like caffeine).
Therefore, regardless of whether you see a bear, are about to confront your boss, or get in a sauna, your body may interpret your situation (or the physiological change) as a threat, and trigger a panic sensations to provide you with a chance to escape.
Although panic attacks evolved as a tool to escape danger, in our current society, being in constant panic is debilitating and, arguably, no longer useful. A key component to help prevent panic attacks is to control your breathing. Therefore, practice the following breathing technique when you are not anxious, twice a day, for 20 minutes.
After a week or two of daily practice, you can utilize abdominal breathing when you are faced with anxiety. It will help settle the physiological sensations of anxiety.
In order to become desensitized to your symptoms, you need to create a safe environment that mimics the symptoms of a panic attack while simultaneously practicing the new breathing technique and reminding yourself that your sensations are not dangerous. To do this, you need to create an environment to help mimic the fight or flight response. Examples include:
This step should be practiced after completing the above steps. Start with 30 seconds to a minute. Upon completion of the exercise, you will want to practice your new breathing technique. You also want to remind yourself of the survival purpose of each symptom. Repeat this exercise.. Once you have gone through more than a minute without intense anxiety, you can increase the amount of time of the exercise.
This step should be practiced after completing the above steps.
Expose yourself to places or situations that previously triggered an attack, now with your new tools. Examples include going to a movie theatre, or taking a drive in the car. Upon entering your feared situation, you will want to practice your new breathing technique. You also want to remind yourself of the survival purpose of each symptom, rather than fearing the sensations.. Maybe the first time, you have a friend in the car. The next time you do it drive for a short amount of time alone. And finally, once your anxiety level is low from those, you can go for a long drive, or sit through an entire move.
If you practice these steps above, your body is less likely to trigger the fight or flight response during times of stress, panic or anxiety and will find that your panic attacks have lessened or even stopped occurring.
Article written by psychotherapists of Group Therapy LA. This private practice is for individuals who want to live the deeply fulfilling, authentic life they deserve!