Throughout this blog I refer to the fear/adrenaline response.
It is the “pseudo-wizard behind the curtain” of a good deal of our anxiety symptoms and I feel that learning about and coming to understand it, is one of the biggest things a person can do to help gain control of their anxiety disorder.
But keep in mind that fear is not the only time that adrenaline is created. We create adrenaline when we are nervous, excited, happy, determined, brave, angry…there are a myriad different conditions and situations in which our brains pump it out.
Think of some of these situations:
- a warrior charging into battle
- a kid seeing their favorite rock star at a concert
- a crowd cheering for their team who makes a great shot
- people riding a roller coaster
- a man winning the lottery
- somebody confronting a person who might be trying to harm them
- a student finally being handed their diploma after years of study
These are certainly all very emotional situations charged with energy and adrenaline, but there is one other thing that is also usually present:
Adrenaline and making vocal noise go hand in hand and they always have. They were MEANT to go together. Back in our caveman days before we had easy to use weapons such as guns, our voice was one of the biggest weapons we had. We would yell or scream to scare off predators and alert others to danger.
That primal instinct still lives in all of us. When we feel adrenaline of any kind, whether its adrenaline we associate with good feelings or bad, happy excitement or fear, we also feel that urge to add some noise to it. We are wired for it. It is the very instinct that makes a group of people yell “Wooooooo!” when a television camera is pointed at them at a big event, or kids yell “Wheeeeee!” when riding their bikes down a hill.
In addition to using noise as a weapon, shouting, screaming, or grunting gives us a physical release when we feel ourselves overloaded with adrenaline. Adrenaline makes us feel a little wild and out of control at times; it helps us produce a lot of energy. Making noise helps us vent our frustrations and let our feelings out, while “burning off” some of the excess adrenaline, so to speak, so we can stay on top of it – instead of it staying on top of us.
Now, think about what you do when you are having a panic attack.
Chances are that you get up and start pacing, or become very fidgety. And after having talked to probably hundreds of people who live with panic disorder over the last 20 years, I would say chances are also good that you also become quiet.
This seems to be a common thread among a lot of us with panic disorder. When we are in the middle of a panic attack, and we are feeling that surge of adrenaline that seems to have come out of the blue….we resit that natural urge to yell or shout. We try to hold it in.
Take me for example. When I am having a panic attack, I might quickly whisper to myself “Oh my God….Oh my God…Oh my God” but that is it. That is all I allow myself to utter. Why do I do this? Why do so many of us with panic disorder fight our natural tendency to make noise when we are at some of the highest adrenaline producing moments of our lives?
It seems to make no sense, right? But the truth is, it’s all about control.
During a panic attack, we don’t know where the panic is coming from and it is as if we are afraid if we give in to it and yell as we would if we were at a scary movie or thrilling amusement park ride, the panic will just consume us….swallow us whole. We are afraid to let go and feel that adrenaline in the most natural way possible. Actually, it feels so un-natural to us to be panicking at that time, for seemingly no reason at all, that we want to stuff it down and bury it. We hope that by being quiet, we are helping to prevent the adrenaline from overflowing out of us like a volcano eruption and leading to our dreaded “nervous breakdown” or whatever imaginary fate we might foresee.
But really, the opposite is true.
Resisting the urge to respond to your adrenaline surge the way you are wired to, can actually help keep the panic around longer, especially in the absence of any deep breathing exercises or distraction techniques you might otherwise put to use. Staying silent says to your “still thinking it lives in the cave“ brain: “Wow, there is something so terrifying out there that my person is afraid to make any noise. It must be BAD!” and it keeps that adrenaline pumping out even more. Making noise, especially low-pitched noise, (higher pitches can send danger signals to your brain and/or trigger “excitement adrenaline” ..think crying baby, fire alarms, etc., getting great news) tells your brain that you are actively handling the situation, that you are calm (ish), trying to scare that threat away, and that you are not paralyzed into silence by whatever horrible thing it is that you might be facing.
Remember that you are not the only one who has no idea what you are so terrified of during a panic attack. Your brain is just as clueless as you are. It only knows how you are responding, and it makes all its determinations based off of that. You can handle a panic attack one of two ways. You can try to ignore it and distract yourself from it. Or you can show your brain that even though you are feeling intense fear, you are handling it, you are not backing away from it and you are not hiding from it or frozen still by it. These are all the messages your brain needs to hear so it can trust that you are okay, or will soon be okay, so it can then start shutting off the stress hormones, helping you feel calmer and eventually “ending” the panic attack.
I know that it is not always possible to make noise when you are panicking.
You can’t exactly sit at your desk or stand behind the cash register at work, and give a war cry like Joan of Arc. But keep this tip in mind for those times that you can make some noise. If you are at home, and you feel panic coming on yell out some confident “Yah!”‘s. Make some “Woo!” sounds. Say to yourself strongly “Let’s go panic…let’s do this!” Again, no high-pitched screams of terror…those probably won’t comfort your brain too much….but some deep sounds from your gut to show that you aren’t backing down, and to help you burn off and use up some of that excess adrenaline, will do you a lot of good.
If yelling our affirmations, grunting or making sounds of that nature feels strange or awkward to you….try singing. Put one of your favorite songs on, and belt that baby out. This is one of my favorite ways to handle panic in the car. Its fun, it burns adrenaline, it is distracting, and it gives my core a good workout which helps me feel calmer when I am done singing and those tired muscles relax. In addition, listening to music uses a totally different part of your brain then feeling fear does, so it takes you out of a “bad brain neighborhood” and puts you into a good one.
I know panic attacks feel complex and complicated. However they are actually a very basic product of the way some of us more sensitive human beings are wired. And the best ways to manage them are always going to be the most basic and simple of ways.