Panic resulting from anxiety can feel like a terrible loss of control and can make you wonder if your life is in danger. If you have experienced a panic reaction (attack), these questions have probably run through your mind: Am I going to die? Is there anyone around to help me?
With anxiety, usually the individual’s mind races along with physiological symptoms (such as increased heart rate and sweating). When having a panic reaction, people often fear dying, going “crazy,” fainting, and public humiliation. This can make them question what is actually going on and what it means. Many think, at some point during the panic attack, that they are going to die. The physiological symptoms can mimic a heart attack (shortness of breath, chest pains, dizziness, and tingling). In fact, up to 25% of people who visit emergency rooms because of chest pain are actually experiencing panic, according to MedicineNet.com and other sources. What is actually happening is your body is reacting to an increase in adrenaline.
So what happens when you experience anxiety? Say an event is coming up or you are in a situation that triggers a reaction. When this reaction starts, you feel like you are losing control. This accelerates your mind (thoughts) and your heartbeat. Your body is now preparing for the “danger” that is coming. It is like pushing a panic button. The warning lights and sounds are triggered, and the system (your body) prepares for what might occur. Your mouth becomes dry and your hands shake. Chemicals (such as adrenaline) begin to flow through your body, signaling the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This system is responsible for the fight-or-flight response that is hard-wired into each of us to help us survive. This response mobilizes each system to deal with the threat and is directing blood flow toward the areas that need it while limiting other bodily functions (such as digestion).
Once you start to notice the changes in your body, you may make the situation worse. You may start to focus on your shallow breathing and the tightness in your chest, and you may worry more, intensifying your symptoms. This, in turn, may increase both your anxiety and your symptoms. The more afraid you get, the more your body produces adrenaline to deal with the threat. Anxiety creates distortions in this normal safety reaction, producing a situation that, when you are reacting to it, feels like a threat. Once the panic subsides, it is difficult to explain why you reacted as strongly as you did.
While in a panic reaction, attempt to focus your attention onto something else. It could be the song on the radio or the birds in the sky. Find something to focus on that is not about what is going on in your body. Once you begin to slow down your thoughts, your body will eventually return to a non-crisis state and you will feel more normal and less out-of-control.
Anxiety can be unpleasant and scary but is not life threatening, even though it may feel like it is. It is also highly responsive to treatment. A variety of treatments including medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes can help you manage your anxiety more effectively. Lifestyle changes may include increasing aerobic exercise, limiting alcohol and caffeine, and learning individual stress-management tools. These tools may include yoga, tai chi, or meditation, learning how to take a deep breath, or learning to walk away.
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Teresa Collett, PsyD, therapist in Silverdale, Washington
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