When anxiety becomes panic

Anxiety is a normal human emotion. It can vary in severity and last from a few moments to hours. If something obvious is causing the stress (e.g. public speaking) the feelings of fear are likely to pass when the stressful situation does. But when these symptoms appear in the absence of any real danger, it is an invisible terror that can escalate to panic. In other words, you are terrified, but don't know what you're terrified of.

Panic is an invisible, yet overwhelming fear

Why does panic occur?

The things humans worry about have evolved, but our reactions have not. A fight or flight response has been hardwired in us since mankind lived in caves. And our bodies still interpret all threats as predators. That speech you're stressing about is seen as a tiger. Then when you think, "I must be going crazy," regarding the stress you feel, the threat level raises to two tigers.

Anyone can be led to panic. It doesn't constitute a mental disorder itself - in fact those with a propensity to panic

have a strong fight or flight system - the very system that allowed the human race to survive. The response is a protective measure, a sign of great survival - although misdirected. What you are experiencing is a 'false alarm,' or a misinterpretation of your thoughts by your body. Your ability to interpret it makes all the difference - just remember it's a normal reaction that you've simply become afraid of.

How panic works

Panic attacks occur from a series of events, both mental and physical, that follows a frightening situation or thought. This is explained by the image below:

1. Anxiety begins with a trigger. - The trigger is different for everyone. It can be a thought, a body sensation or a certain situation.

2. After the trigger we get tense. - We start to imagine the bad things this trigger will bring.

Escape - We may feel inclined to flee a situation any time we feel anxious. While getting out of the situation means immediate relief, we also escape any chance of overcoming anxiety.

3. The tension affects our bodies. - We show physical symptoms such as shaking, sweating and nausea.

4. Fear makes it worse. - When we interpret these physical symptoms as something catastrophic, e.g. "I'm going to die," this leads to a panic attack.

Many panic attack sufferers live in dread of having another one, but the resulting reactions maintain the cycle of panic throughout:

Hyper-vigilance

Constantly scanning your body for symptoms, or in other words 'listening in' to body sensations, signifies the onset of panic.

Avoidance

If you avoid places that cause panic, you will never learn how to cope with these attacks. This can leave you living in a world of fear.

Explanation of symptoms

A fear of these symptoms and what they mean feeds panic, but understanding why they happen gives you power over them. Luckily your patterns are predictable. If you haven't experienced one of these symptoms in a panic attack before, you probably never will.

Why are you shaking?

Your muscles tense up making you ready for action, which leaves your legs wobbly, and body shaking.

Why do you feel nauseous?

Blood is redirected from your extremities, stomach and head to deep within large muscle tissue (biceps and thighs). This is so when the perceived predator bites you, you have less chance of bleeding to death. This redirected blood flow from your stomach can leave you feeling nauseous.

Why do you feel dizzy?

As blood is redirected from your head into muscle tissue, this can leave you feeling lightheaded. But it is a preventative measure to redirect blood from your neck and other vital places you could be bitten.

Why does your breathing speed up?

Your body is trying to quickly move oxygen into your blood to redirect it to your muscles.

Why are you sweating?

Sweating increases to help cool the body in preparation for fight or flight.

Why are your pupils dilated?

Tunnel vision helps track the predator - leaving funny tricks of vision.

Why does your heart race?

This is so that blood can quickly reach
your muscles.

Why do you feel the urge to leave the situation?

This is a preventative measure to protect you from the predator.

Common misconceptions

“I'm going crazy”

First of all, people who are going mad typically aren't aware of it. The fear of going mad indicates you are in touch with reality. You may feel as though you are in a dream, or everything around you seems strange, but this is a symptom of anxiety due to temporary blood flow change. Finally, you can't go crazy from a panic attack, even though it may feel this way at the time.

“I'm having a heart attack”

Heart attacks stop the heart when it is strained, and panic attacks cause the heart to race while you are at rest. There is no need to fear for your health. Your body is well-equipped to deal with a racing heart - the fight or flight response is as natural as your digestive system. If you have had a checkup with your doctor and nothing has been found, this is probably anxiety. 

“I'm dying”

You may experience an overwhelming sense of fear during a panic attack, but you are far from dead - in fact you couldn't be more alive if you tried.

Helpful reminders

Panic cannot last. You only have a limited amount of adrenaline before it burns out. And you will always 'come back' from a panic attack, otherwise you would still be in your last one.

You have already lived through the worst and survived it, and you always will.

Although you will be forever changed after you've had a panic attack, you now have knowledge that you never had before, and it is better to know about panic than not.

Through this experience you will develop a deeper compassion and understanding of human suffering than ever before - expect personal growth in your journey.

This experience will become your baseline of personal suffering. Nothing will rock you in quite the same way again.

Panic naturally decreases with age as the nervous system changes with the passage of time. Trust that you will be panic free in older age.

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Further reading

Visit these sites to read more about panic disorders

Support

Contact us if you have any further questions about CalmKeeper

gerney@xtra.co.nz

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FAQs

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