If you’ve ever had a panic attack you will know exactly why people go to great lengths to prevent further occurrences. When in full swing, a panic attack is an overwhelmingly intense sensation that something awful is about to happen, or that you’re about to die, and with the heart racing uncontrollably, shortness of breath, sweating and trembling, it’s easy to see why. Panic attacks are very common, but they are NOT a sign of mental illness neither do they mean you’re going to die. To prevent these awful sensations, understandably people often want to escape to safer places, or avoid places altogether, but by trying to keep safe we actually make our worlds much smaller and less enjoyable, often cutting off from friends and social situations, and keeping within safe zones of travel.
Panic is a reaction to fear, and although very unpleasant, panic attacks are actually just an extreme form of normalfear that any human is capable of experiencing. We are all hard-wired to feel fear, and it’s absolutely necessary that we do; our brains have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years yet our primitive fight or flightsystem has hardly changed. Back in our cave-dweller days when our threats were dangerous predators, fight or flight was key to our survival, helping us to respond to danger skilfully via a sequence of automatic physical changes. In our modern worlds we no longer have dangerous predators, instead our fears are enclosed spaces, speaking publicly, confrontation, judgement, phobias and so on. But our brain doesn’t distinguish between life or death, it just wants to keep us safe, remember, fear is normalbut we panic when overwhelmed by fear. Each of us will have different triggers and coping strategies.
When our fear response is activated – fight or flight – we don’t have time to think, instead, our bodies react with lightening speed to keep us safe . But these automatic changes aren’t designed to make us feel good, they’re designed to keep us alive. Whilst this brilliant system for survival works wonders in dangerous situations, it can also leave us feeling pretty rotten as a result, often exacerbating anxiety and panic….
- We breath faster so that oxygen gets to the muscles quicker, ready for us to run or fight
- When we breathe quicker we can experience dizziness or light-headedness, this will happen we suddenly get more oxygen than we need
Heart rate increases:
- This is entirely normal – your muscles need more blood very quickly to burst into action if necessary
- A fast beating heart can increase panic and may feel uncomfortable, particularly if palpitations are present
Tingly or numb hands and feet:
- If we’re going to need to run or fight, then blood is needed in bigger muscle groups, and so is redirected away from less important areas such as skin, toes and fingers
- This is why we can look pale when scared, and our toes and fingers can tingle or go numb due to a temporary lack of blood in this area
- If we are getting ready for action then we are going to generate much more heat, the body regulates our temperature for us and wants to get rid of the excess heat
- This will make you feel very sweaty and clammy, often when out in public
Changes in tummy and bowel movements
- The tummy doesn’t need to be casually digesting food when panic strikes, therefore the bowels become loose to save energy for something more important, like running away or fighting the enemy
- You may feel nausea (or indeed be sick), need the toilet more often, or have a very dry mouth
- When we are in the midst of fear, we need to be keeping an eye out for danger – therefore our focus of attention shifts to anything more important in the moment
- If you are edgy and tense and focused on fear, then concentration is shot to pieces, often resulting in a ‘foggy head’
Understanding that our bodies react in such extreme ways to danger, but is in itself not dangerous, can be the first step to overcoming panic. Furthermore, breathing effectively when anxious or panicky can be one of the greatest tools at our disposal. Read more on ‘how the breath can help calm anxiety and panic’ on this site to begin mastering your panic today.