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Disclaimer: If you are having worrisome bodily symptoms, this blog should in no way, shape, or form serve as a replacement for visiting a doctor. Use the strategies mentioned in this blog only once you visit a doctor and confirm that your symptoms are not indications of a more serious condition.
One of the most important steps in pacifying your panic attacks is learning that they are not dangerous. In fact, research suggests that eliminating catastrophic interpretations of bodily sensations can be sufficient, in and of itself, to relieve panic attacks. If you can learn to view sensations such as dizziness, tightness in your chest, rapid heartbeat, and so on as harmless body symptoms rather than signs of imminent danger, you will very likely have fewer – if any –panic attacks.
A panic attack is your body’s natural fight-or-flight response occurring out of context and in the absence of immediate danger. The panic attack you experience while sitting quietly at your desk or lying in bed at night is physiologically indistinguishable from your response to real-life dangerous situations, like the intense bodily sensations you might experience if a masked man with a gun started chasing you. These bodily sensations associated with both panic attacks and the fight-or-flight response can include:
- Increased heart rate
- Faster breathing
- Tensing of your muscles, including the chest muscles around your lungs and jaw
- Constriction of your arteries and reduced blood flow to your hands and feet
- Release of stored sugar from your liver into your bloodstream
- Greater production of sweat
The panic cycle begins when these sometimes unpleasant sensations materialize as a result of everyday stress, past trauma, or natural bodily processes (e.g., fluctuations in blood sugar, hormonal shifts). Viewing these sensations as catastrophic can trigger a full-blown panic attack just as seeing an armed robber as a threat can catalyze the body’s fight-or-flight reaction. For example, believing that a harmless sensation, like a mild acceleration in heart rate, is a sign that you’re in physical danger (e.g., heart attack) can cause the symptom to escalate (e.g., your heart-rate could speed up even more) and spiral into a panic attack.
The first step in preventing catastrophic interpretations is to familiarize yourself with calming, scientifically-based explanations for your natural bodily sensations.
- A faster heartbeat and heart palpitations are likely caused by an increase in adrenaline and sympathetic nervous system activity (SNS) that accompanies the early stage of an anxiety reaction (aka your fight-or-flight reaction). These sensations are typically not dangerous, even if they continue for a while. For instance, a healthy heart can beat rapidly for hours without putting you at any risk.
- An increase in chest constriction and shortness of breath are often due to the contraction of muscles surrounding the chest cavity, which is also due to increased SNS activity. Such symptoms have nothing to do with suffocation. Your chest muscles actually cannot contract to the point where you would be at risk of suffocating, no matter how unpleasant the tightness in your chest feels.
- Lightheadedness and tingling are common symptoms of anxiety and are usually not indications that you are about to faint. They are caused by minor constrictions in the arteries of your brain and limbs, which lead to a slight reduction in blood circulation. It is extremely unlikely that you would faint, even if you feel quite lightheaded, because, when you are anxious, you usually experience an increase in blood pressure due to increased adrenaline and SNS activity. Fainting, on the other hand, typically occurs during a drop in blood pressure.
- Disorientation, dizziness, nausea, and feelings of unreality (i.e., feeling like you are not real or like you are in a movie) can occur when anxiety-induced jaw tension puts pressure on the inner ear, which is associated with your sense of balance. This inner-ear pressure can irritate the nerves that connect to the stomach and eyes, which can cause dizziness, disorientation, floating sensations, blurred vision, feelings of nausea, and diarrhea. Relabel these symptoms as jaw tension and inner ear pressure and know that these harmless sensations will pass with time. Try clenching and then letting go of your jaw to speed up the process.
Develop positive thoughts about your panic attacks.
After reading these medical explanations, the most helpful next step is to develop positive statements for your most common panic symptoms. This positive thought should include an alternative explanation for your bodily symptoms and an optimistic or comforting self- statement (i.e., I am safe) that will help you stay calm and remember that your symptoms will pass momentarily. For example, if you notice your heart is beating faster than usual, instead of “I am going to have a heart attack,” you might tell yourself, “My heart beat is faster because I am a nervous. This is not dangerous, and it will pass with time. I am safe.”
Panic attacks can be terrifying, confusing, and overwhelming experiences that greatly impact your quality of life. Working with a counselor can greatly ease the process of enduring, understanding, and overcoming panic attacks. Your counselor can help you learn effective relaxation strategies and can guide you in replacing the catastrophic thoughts that fuel anxiety with the positive thoughts that can stop panic attacks in their tracks.
The best news about panic attacks is that they are entirely treatable. A few years ago, when I moved to a new city for work and was hours away from my close friends and family, I started experiencing intense waves of fear marked by crying spells, tingling limbs, the inexplicable sense that I was about to die, and a desperate desire to “escape” on a weekly basis. With the support of friends and family and good bit of research, I learned that what I was experiencing were panic attacks, that I was not actually in danger, and that I could prevent these attacks by using positive statements instead of catastrophizing about every slight bodily sensation (e.g., “Oh my God! Is that a slight tingling I feel in my left arm?…I am about to have a nervous breakdown at work!”). I have not had a panic attack since.
By practicing relaxation strategies, working with a counselor, and changing the way you think about anxious sensations, you can very likely reduce – or altogether eliminate – your panic attacks. For information on treating panic attacks with relaxation strategies, see this past blog post on what to do if you are having a panic attack. If you would like more strategies and additional help in pacifying your panic attacks, you can read about anxiety counseling or contact us to make a counseling appointment.
Source: The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook (2010) by Edmund Bourne, Ph.D.