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WHAT ARE THEY AND WHY HAVE THEM?
PANIC ATTACKS. WHAT ARE THEY AND WHY HAVE THEM?
What is a Panic Attack?
Hundreds of thousands of years ago a panic attack was a very useful thing. We led much more physically challenging and dangerous lives then. We didn't have sharp teeth or claws and so we had to be able to react very quickly to a threat.
And in those days there were two simple choices. We could either run or, if desperate enough, we could fight. In this case, a panic attack is called the 'Fight or Flight' response. You may well have heard of it.
The Fight or Flight Response (or Panic Attack!)
The ability to quickly become very scared is what kept people alive in primitive times. This ability can be seen as one of the most important parts of our make-up - a highly efficient survival response for dangerous times. Back then, threats were simple and straight forward but often very dangerous a wild animal, or member of an enemy tribe for instance.
Now in modern times we are still ‘threatened’, but most of these threats are non-physical. Your body, however, still responds as if they are. For example: It is a ‘threat’ to be bullied at work, to lose one’s job, to have a relationship end or to get behind on mortgage re-payments.
However, sometimes the ancient part of the brain responds to these kinds of threats as if they were immediately physical rather than social or economical so that the fight/flight response 'goes off’ inappropriately.
So, what is intended as an essential safety system in the body and mind begins to get in the way in every day modern life. Luckily, we can now ‘re-train’ the panic response so that it assumes its rightful place.
Physical threats could come about very suddenly in primitive times so humans had to respond very fast to have a chance of survival. That is why the mind of a human being can trigger a panic attack fast and unconsciously. *This is highly important*. People who suffer panic attacks often report that "they come from nowhere" and this is an essential part of the fight or flight response. http://www.croftacademy.com/fromstresstorelaxation
The Panic Attack: Faster Than the Speed of Thought
If you are in a threatening situation and you have to *think* before getting the hormonal changes associated with the flight or fight response, it may well be too late.
Alternatively, you might make the wrong choice, so the Unconscious part of our mind takes care of it. And of course, in a survival situation, it is better to respond as if danger is present when it's not, rather than the other way round.
Much safer to err on the side of caution!
In case you're wondering what the 'unconscious mind' is: Processes such as digestion, blood pressure and body temperature are controlled and monitored by the brain. These functions generally occur outside of awareness. A panic attack is controlled largely unconsciously, hence the feeling that they 'come from nowhere'.
If it is unclear how this relates to a panic attack in a supermarket, or in the street, then bear with me - all will become clear. So, we've talked about the evolutionary reasons for panic, but what is actually happening to the body during a panic attack? Why does it feel so strange?
What happens during a panic attack?
Well, several things happen as your body alters its priorities from long term survival to emergency short term survival. In response to the release of hormones such as adrenaline, your blood pressure increases and breathing speeds up preparing you for muscular effort.
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Your legs may shake as they are prepared for running Your hands may shake as the large muscles of your arms are prepared to fight. Your palms and feet may become sweaty to give you better grip. Blood is shunted away from the stomach to the major muscle groups where it will be used during an emergency. This is why people who experience regular stress often have digestive problems: blood is constantly being pumped to areas other than the stomach.
The pupils dilate to let in more light, so we can gain more information about the situation.
You may also feel like vomiting or defecating, which too can be seen to have survival value. If you vomit or defecate then you will be lighter to run from an attacker and are less appetising as a potential meal.
Remember... all these responses have survival value in the sort of circumstances that they originally evolved for. So why is it that so many of us experience a panic attack in comparably safe modern environment?
Why do some of us have Panic Attacks?
So why is it that so many of us experience feelings of panic in a comparably safe modern environment? The answer is to be found in our history.
Human evolution has taken approximately 135 million years. Modern life can only be said to have existed for the last ten thousand years or so - less than one thousandth of one percent (.001%) of our evolution. This is not nearly long enough for us to adapt. So, in a very real sense, we are stuck in a modern world using ancient tools.
The 'Trip-wire' of Panic
Now this is all very well, but it doesn't explain why one person has a panic attack while another doesn't or why we can suddenly just start to have them. For the answer to this question, we must look at the stress levels in our lives.
Remember that stress is caused by the way we react to a situation. When a person is generally stressed, or anxious, the sensitive 'trip-wire' which is the fight or flight response is more easily triggered.
The Unconscious Mind is a Quick Learner
Once a panic attack has happened in a situation, the mind can quickly learn to fear the situation itself. The panic response can be ‘conditioned’ to be triggered by the situation or environment. So, too much ongoing day-to-day stress can prime this 'trip-wire' causing it to go off like a faulty car alarm every time someone walks past it.
This is the same mechanism that causes you to remember old memories when you hear a song, or smell a particular odour.
We can slacken our 'trip-wire' by making sure that we take enough time to relax every day. We've established that a panic attack is a response we all need sometimes.
You can see your panic response as a guard whose job it is to protect you from harm. It needs to be there but it also needs to learn to distinguish between threatening and non-threatening situations, between friend and foe.
Sometimes, once a person's unconscious mind has learnt to 'attach' panic attacks to a certain situation, ‘desensitisation;, or 'de-conditioning' needs to take place.
Essentially, this means returning the situation or memory to its original state, as non-emotional. This was traditionally done through ‘systematic desensitisation' where a person is slowly reintroduced to the problem area.
These days, it is possible to de-condition memories, or panic situations, using a guided visualisation technique known as the Fast Phobia Cure, or V/K dissociation, in addition to techniques such as EMDR, Thought Field Therapy and Hypnotherapy using suggestion or analytical approaches. Any of these therapeutic approaches to panic must be used in conjunction with a suitably qualified, experienced and trained practitioner.
Agoraphobia and Panic Attacks
Some people, after having a panic attack, develop a fear of open spaces. This is known as agoraphobia and may appear as fear of being in crowds or busy places or just being outside the home.
If we look at this from an evolutionary perspective it makes sense. Thousands of years ago we would have had to be careful of wide-open spaces because of the possibility of being attacked by wild animals.
How Panic Attacks can spread
Agoraphobia can also develop as occasionally, panic attacks 'spread' from one situation to another. As we saw above, panic attacks work via the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind 'sees' a pattern that was previously associated with panic, and assumes that it is appropriate to panic again.
Because this 'pattern match' has to be approximate, mistakes can be made. So, for example, a lady we once treated for panic attacks had her first one on a crowded underground train when it got stuck in a tunnel. Her mother had just died and she was already highly stressed. At a party the following week she had another panic attack. She was sitting on a sofa, surrounded by people; her unconscious mind decided that this was 'the same' as the underground (where she had been sitting surrounding by people) and triggered a second panic attack. It's not too hard to see how this could continue to spread to other public transport and more public situations.
She was treated by firstly de-conditioning the situations in which she had the worst panic attacks. This 're-educated' the unconscious mind so that it no longer matched those situations to the panic response.
Calming Things Down
Once your panic attacks stop then your mind and body will get the message that the situations in which your panic attacks occurred are no longer real threats.
Part of any treatment for anxiety or panic disorder has to be the learning of techniques for relaxing, and the practice of these techniques on a regular basis. If you experience any of these symptoms, you can contact Kevin or Pauline for free advice on 01325 316356 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
You might want to try one of our Self Hypnosis mp3 downloads for stress or confidence by clicking here or check out one of our workshops such as From Stress To Relaxation
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