If you get panic attacks, there is something important for you to understand.
There is really no such thing as a panic “attack”. The panic you experience during a panic attack is no different from any of the other “real” panic you have experienced in your life.
I feel it is important for you to know this because it’s bad enough when you are feeling panicky all day long, but then to believe that your panic is being thrust upon you by some malfunctioning part of your brain……well, that can make you want to panic even more and really over-complicate how you see your panic disorder and make recovery more challenging.
Panic is just…..panic. There is nothing special or unique about the panic you experience during an “attack”. It is not any worse or more dangerous than any of the other panic you have felt throughout your life. Even though you may now be in the midst of a terrible anxiety spiral and find yourself panicking at the drop of a hat, the whole “fear/adrenaline response” system that is leading to that panic is working exactly as it has always worked your entire life. It’s working quite well, actually:
1. Something triggers fear in you.
2. You feel the fear, intensely, then the brain sends a large amount of adrenaline coursing through your body.
3. You then feel those adrenaline side effects such as heart pounding, trembling, that “rush” sensation that you know so well….etc.
This is a very normal response, designed to give you the strength to “fight or flee” whatever danger we are facing. I think it’s pretty clear that part of your brain works AMAZINGLY well. You are a “quality adrenaline producer”, without a doubt.
But if this is the case, then where does the problem come in?
During a panic “attack”, there is a 4th and 5th stage of panic that causes the fear/adrenaline response to keep repeating itself, making you feel as though you are being “attacked”:
4. You begin to fear the symptoms/physical side effects of adrenaline.
5. Your brain produces even MORE adrenaline in response to the fear.
And this is a cycle that continues until you calm yourself down, or exhaust yourself to the point that you can’t keep the panic up anymore.
The next logical question is “Why is this happening to me?”
The answer is a combination of a few things, and your panic attack could be the result of any or all of these things.
1. The first is that you are so overly sensitized due to stress and mental fatigue, that you are now over-reacting to things that you wouldn’t normally react to, such as your thoughts, your feelings, or things seeming a bit “off” in your environment or your overall sense of “being”. This is Nervous Ned syndrome to the max and is very normal for people who are overly sensitized.
2. The second is that due to that same mental fatigue and stress, you are now probably spending a lot more time living inside your head where thinking is deeper and less “logical”. The “fun- house effect” can easily kick in when you have a tired mind, making things seem weird and distorted and it can push mentally exhausted people into panic mode because they don’t understand why they feel so “out there”. But really, just plain old simple fear is at the root of this one, as it is at the root of all panic attacks.
3. The third is that you are so keyed up from stress, that quite often your brain senses your fear of whatever the trigger is before you do. Your brain is in such a state of over-protection, because you trained it to be that way, that it shoots out that adrenaline before you even had time to realize something scared you. You could feel your ears have plugged up over something as simple as a head cold. And before you even have time to think “that feels weird”, your brain senses something from you, and out comes a WHOOSH! of adrenaline. You don’t know why you are feeling an adrenaline rush so now you start getting really scared. You start fearing the symptoms of the adrenaline and the fear quickly turns intense. It now feels as though you are being attacked by some unknown force.
All of these things can contribute to a state of panic. And they are all very normal responses from a tired over-protective brain.
One thing that keeps panic attacks dragging on and making you feel as though you are being attacked and in “victim mode” is that quite often, you aren’t really aware of WHY you are panicking, so you don’t really know when it is safe to STOP panicking. How do you know when the threat is gone, if you aren’t really sure what the threat was in the first place?
It is also very easy to just get “caught up in the current” of panic.
You can feel the tiniest little touch of adrenaline, and you are very aware that you felt it, and you think “Oh no, here we go……”, and that one little touch of adrenaline can trigger a response that multiplies into a raging panic attack in mere seconds. This is all due to that adrenaline surge, and hyper-awareness, and just plain fear. I dealt with this a lot. I was always very aware of the whole process from start to finish, but I felt like it was a force that had taken me over, that I was powerless over. I felt as though all I could do was hang on tight and pray I didn’t fall off the ride.
But remember that regardless of how your panic attack occurs, you are NEVER being attacked. No matter how intense your fear is… no matter how bad your panic is……it is part of a very normal response by your very normal brain, and the basic set up is the same. You feel fear, your brain responds with adrenaline, you feel more fear because of the adrenaline, etc, etc.
But it’s important to remember that the adrenaline rush is NOT the panic.
How you respond to the adrenaline rush….that is the panic.
Always remember that YOU are the one panicking….not your brain. And because you are the one panicking, you are ultimately the one in control of that panic. That gives you great power. That means you have a choice. That means that you have always had a choice.
Right now, on some level, you are choosing to panic…you just don’t realize it. And because you are choosing to panic, that means you can STOP choosing to panic any time you want to. No matter the level of fear you are experiencing, you get to decide how you respond to that level of fear. You – your conscious self – is the one running this whole show. I always say that our minds are like little theaters putting on these elaborate dramatic productions. YOU are the producer. YOU own this theater, and what you say goes. YOU get the final say. Do not let your diva lead actress (your subconscious) and your tech/prop guy (your brain) try to tell you what kind of show you are going to put on.
When it comes to panic….YOU have the power of veto. You can stay calm and stop panicking about ANY situation you are dealing with or feeling. It may take time and practice, because obviously your reaction patters are pretty strong right now, but you can re-create your response patterns and stay in control of yourself at all times if you just practice and stay consistent with your efforts.
I will share my tips for stopping panic “attacks” at a later time, but right now that isn’t even important. Because you don’t need any tips to stop panic attacks. You just need to stop panicking. That’s it. This is something you CAN train yourself to do.
You don’t have to stop being afraid.
You don’t have to stop feeling “weird”.
You just have to make the conscious choice to stop freaking out about how weird and afraid you feel. You can still feel both of those things without panicking. You can feel any type of anxiety symptom without panicking about it.
Subconsciously of course, maybe even consciously, you are going to want to continue panicking. And that is okay! In an odd sense, panicking can give us a sense of false control over a situation. If we don’t know what else to do, we can panic. It may not be the ideal choice but at least we are doing something, and that is better than waiting around patiently for impending doom to strike us, right??
But also, a lot of us are just natural over reactors at heart, even without the added “adrenaline bonus” that our anxiety disorders give us. It’s just who we are.
I for one, am a panicker at heart and I always will be. Let the calm people have their calm….I will be off in the corner freaking out somewhere thank you very much. That is who I really am and I am not ashamed of it in the slightest! I want to live, readers, and if I think that something is threatening my chances of being alive, or my kids being alive, then my first instinct will always be to panic. Have no doubt about that.
But I had reached the point where I was panicking over everything. My thinking patterns and over reactions and lack of taking care of my emotional health had me so overly sensitized that I was panicking every time a speck of dust flew my way. Those panic episodes felt out of my control and I just let them keep “happening to me” day in and day out. I was a WRECK. But the truth is that the “attacks” weren’t happening TO me, they were happening because of me……because I wasn’t even trying to stay calm or use my power….. and thank God I figured that out because I can’t imagine carrying on the way I did.
The cost was WAY too high.
I decided to stand up and say “No more”. I decided to pull it together and learn to calm myself and take control of my reactions, even when I was really scared.
The “attacks” didn’t stop overnight of course, because there is a lot of habit involved in panic attacks and there is that over-sensitization involved. However, once I figured out that I was the one in control, and that I could stop panicking, and I got disgusted enough to really WANT to stop panicking, it wasn’t long before I DID stop panicking.
It’s not that my brain healed or I became chemically “balanced” again. Those were never issues in the first place. The only thing that changed was that I got rid of the overall stress in my life, quit speaking badly to myself, and I re-taught myself the very same “self soothing” process that I learned when I was a small child. I retrained myself to stay calm through distraction and faith in myself and self-reassuring thoughts. And once I made up my mind to do this, it really wasn’t all that hard.
Do I still panic from time to time? YES! But I save those times for when I feel it is justified. I use my common sense and rational thinking to stay within the boundaries of what I, personally, consider to be acceptable reasons to panic.
Is one of my kids in danger? I’m okay panicking at that time. Its my preferred response.
Is there a tornado headed my way? Its time to freak out.
I felt an adrenaline surge and my heart just started racing? Stay calm, Lisa. Lets wait and see how this plays out before we start jumping to the worst conclusion possible.
I felt a twitch in my leg and now all of a sudden I feel “weird” and everything seems kind of “off”? I am sure it’s nothing. I have been down this road a thousand times. Let me just get my mind on something else and then if I still feel this way in half an hour, I will reassess.
I just had to decide what I personally think is an acceptable thing to panic about, and draw my line in the sand and do my damndest never to cross it. Ideally of course, I would never panic about anything. But again, I am who I am, and I could meditate every hour of the day until I am 90 and I am NEVER going to be the kind of person who never panics. Nor would I want to be. I like to reserve my right to freak out whenever I feel like it. I just need to be a little choosier about when I let that horse run free.
So to wrap it up here, I just want to say again that if you are living with Panic Disorder, I have been where you are! I know that panicking feels like the appropriate response when you are freaked out and don’t know what is wrong.
I know that in a twisted way it feels GOOD to panic and it feels RIGHT to panic because you are so freaked out that any other response just doesn’t seem at all appropriate. It doesn’t even seem possible that you could not or should not be panicking.
But you DO have another choice. You DO get a say in the matter.
All you have to do, is realize that you are the one in charge and you always have been.
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