A Panic attack is an exaggeration of the body’s normal response to fear. The first panic attack can be very frightening because people do not understand what is happening. They fear they may faint, have a heart attack, go insane, or die
Panic attacks are unpleasant but cannot harm us mentally or physically.
Anxiety reaches a peak and we may develop a panic attack. This can cause many unpleasant symptoms and sensations. Most of the common ones are:-
- Breathing difficulties Pains or tightness of the chest
- Palpitations Feeling unreal or not there
- Trembling Dizziness
- Sweating Feeling faint or loss of balance
- A fear of not being in control
- A feeling that you can’t cope
- A feeling of being trapped
- A feeling of losing control
These symptoms are powerful and dramatic but are perfectly normal symptoms if we were in danger. They are part of the fight and flight response. The same thing is happening when we experience a panic attack, but we are not in danger and nothing bad is going to happen. We can then develop the fear of what if I have another one, or fear of the fear itself, which contributes to keep the anxiety going. We may think a panic attack will happen in the same situation or place, so we begin avoidance behavior. The problem is that behaviour will begin to restrict our life.
Spontaneous panic attacks appear to come out of the blue for no apparent reason. These can be very frightening. Spontaneous panic is seen in most anxiety disorders. (See our leaflet on Spontaneous Panic attacks be Professor Kevin Gournay)
What else keeps us in this panic cycle? Negative, irrational thinking place a large part in anxiety. When we are thinking that something terrible will happen these fearful thoughts are also symptoms of a panic attack. What happens is the body releases more adrenalin into the system and the anxiety remains high.
So when we respond to the wrong signal, we get tricked into treating a panic attack as dangerous, we end up doing all the things that will make the attack last longer. The first step is to learn how to relax, do the breathing technique, CBT and let go of your fears.
The Fear Response
All anxiety disorders, for example phobias are centered round our natural reactions to fear. People who suffer from Phobias are really afraid of the feelings of fear that accompany their feared situation. Nearly all phobias are related around situations, places, object or animals which cannot possibly harm them.
Fear is a natural response in all of us. It keeps us safe by making sure that most of the time we are not in dangerous situations. However sometimes when we are not thinking about what we are doing, we do things that are dangerous, e.g. stepping off the pavement without looking and almost getting run over. The vehicle, as it is getting close, will probably sound its horn and our ‘fear response’ will get us out of danger. The shock to our system, when something like this happens, is enormous and very unpleasant. This may cause us to have some unpleasant symptoms, sweating, shaking, trembling, feeling nauseous, and our heart pounds. Without our fear response we would not have reacted but stood where we were in the road and the consequence of that is not hard to imagine.
Fear is a skill, which we have learned as we grow up. How many times do we see children run onto a busy road? They have not learned the fear response.
It can be seen clearly that fear in the right place is essential to our well being. Without it I doubt if most of us would survive very long. Having established that that we need to survive, what has this to do with phobias or anxiety disorders? The answer is that, over a long period of time, sufferers have learned too much fear and misinterpret situations as if they are real danger. Our body will always respond to the tension in our body and the way we think with the primitive reaction of the ‘fight and flight’ response.
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