Bonus YSS: Panic attacks: What are they? What can you do?

As noted above, anxiety can cause physical symptoms: stomach aches, sweating, shakes, etc. (This is due to the mind-body connection discussed in the Your Self Series books and in Trauma 101 on this website..) Sometimes, those physical symptoms can become so strong that people experience what is known as a “panic attack.”

What is a panic attack? 

It is just what the name implies – an attack of panic that is terrifying. Panic attacks are triggered by a stressor. A stressor is the thing that causes the stress or anxiety in the first place. A person suffering from a panic attack is responding to what most people would feel is a low-to-moderate stressor with both the fear and the physical symptoms of a high level stressor. For example, Fiona’s stressor is bugs. Many people don’t mind bugs. Some people are annoyed by them. Fiona has a phobia of them. So when Fiona thinks she may have swallowed a bug – yes, gross but not life threatening- but her body and mind responds as if it is life threatening. She thinks, “Oh no!!!! I’ve swallowed a bug! It’s going to eat me from the inside out and I’m going to die!! She starts to sweat, her heart races, she is not able to think straight and she is having difficulties breathing. She is having a panic attack.

What is a panic disorder?

In this example, Fiona’s stressor was well defined – swallowing a bug. But for people who have a panic disorder (the mental disorder characterized by repeated panic attacks) the stressors are often not well defined. That means that a person can have a panic attack for what seems like no reason at all. As a result, some people will stop going out of their houses or anywhere new because they are worried that they will have a panic attack.

How thoughts leads to panic attacks?

In general, here’s what happens when a person suffers from a panic attack: Remember that thought/feelings/response diagram? (Oh yeah the one pictured here.)

Well, someone who is having a panic attack starts out with a thought like, “Oh my goodness, I can’t handle this situation.” The result is the feeling of fear and anxiety. This feeling causes a bodily response of sweating, shaking and an increased heart rate. As a result, the person then thinks, “Wow, my heart is racing. This is really awful. What is happening to me?” Those thoughts set off more fear and more physical symptoms. Ultimately, a person suffering from a panic attack thinks something like, “I can’t breathe! This is so awful!!! I think I may die!” which really is a terrifying thought.

What can you do?

Panic attacks are highly treatable, especially through cognitive behavior therapy, CBT, (discussed in the above sub-post). CBT works on changing the thoughts and behaviors that set off this downward spiral of anxiety. By managing those thoughts and changing behaviors, physical symptoms are reduced and the downward spiral is broken. If you or any one you know suffers from panic attacks, seek help. Medication is also an option but can only be prescribed by a physician.

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