Panic Attacks: How They Take Over

A young woman crouches down and peers over a seat in an empty theater.Since many survivors of a traumatic life event(s) experience the grip of panic attacks, I want to focus on demystifying these, sometimes painful and often frightening, experiences. While it may seem that there is no benefit from a panic attack, in its essence, a panic attack is an attempt by your body and mind to protect you from a perceived danger.

In a previous article, Understanding the Physical Impact of Extreme Stress, I discussed the impact of stress on the body and mind. The brain receives information about the status of the world through your five senses. Once this information reaches the brain, the first stop is a danger detection center that determines whether the incoming information indicates a danger or threat. If there is a threat, the body can go into fight, flee, or freeze. Some physical changes the body makes include: an increase in the rate of breathing, a faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, the funneling of blood to your running/fighting muscles, increased muscle tension, pupil dilation, an increase in sweat, increased pain tolerance and, finally, a bolstering of your immune system.

Panic attacks occur when the mind & body misperceive a minor or imagined source of danger; rather than responding with either a low stress response, the danger detection center ignites a full-blown stress response. For example, someone with a fear of dogs sees a Dachshund puppy on a leash across the park—information from the senses—or someone in excellent health who fears a heart attack notices a heart palpitation and interprets it as a sign of heart failure—information from inside the body—and the mind and body start entering a protective (panic) mode.

In addition to the triggers being misread, the bodily changes, which ensue due to the stress response, are interpreted as new sources of information. This information says that you are facing a major threat, hence increasing the already heightened danger detection center’s response. This misreading of both external triggers and internal body states results in the mind and body ramping-up to tackle what is being falsely regarded as a significant threat to safety.

The intensity of the panic attack, in turn, reinforces the misreading of the incoming information—since only danger would justify such a severe reaction, and since there was a severe reaction, there must have been danger. Over time, anything associated with the panic attack can trigger an attack; even just thinking about these associations or the actual trigger can ignite the danger response. I.e., just thinking about a dog, hearing a dog bark, seeing a park, feeling your heart rate, or noticing any “non-normal” physical sensation can induce a panic attack. This leads to more and more physiological experiences of danger, which reinforce the belief that you are genuinely in danger. Not only does this begin a vicious cycle, but it also leads to the avoidance of a panic attack becoming a prime motivator. Since avoiding a panic attack means avoiding triggers—those within your body, mind, and in the physical world—you begin to narrow your life experiences, which paradoxically strengthens the panic attack, ultimately leading to you losing out on the rich tapestry of life.

Thankfully, it is possible to block the progression of panic attacks and to, essentially, reverse the process that leads up to the attacks. A hallmark feature of all therapies, which aid people in decreasing their panic attacks, is slow and gradual exposure to the triggers, as well as replacing the danger response with a safety/calm response.

Working with a trained professional will ensure that you are able to overcome your panic attacks and re-engage in a life full of meaning, purpose, and vitality. Even though reaching out to a trained therapist may be a fear inducing activity, it is one which can cease the dominance of fear in your life.

© Copyright 2011 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Nikki G

    Nikki G

    February 9th, 2011 at 1:22 PM

    I have been the victim of panic attacks and I can tell you that they are not any fun! It feels like you can’t breathe and that alone makes you even more panicky and at a loss for what to do. I am looking for new ways to handle this type of situation if it ever comes up in my life again.

  • Stacy

    Stacy

    February 9th, 2011 at 7:08 PM

    I’ve read quite a few articles about panic attacks but have never come across something like this one. You have explained clearly about what happens in our body in such simple terms. Thanks a lot for this very informative article.

  • Aaron V

    Aaron V

    February 10th, 2011 at 4:13 AM

    Panic attacks can quickly turn into a habit sort of a thing if left unchecked. I’ve seen a friend suffer from this and trust me, you wouldn’t want to leave panic attacks unchecked if you do have them!

  • Trainee Psychotherapist

    Trainee Psychotherapist

    February 10th, 2011 at 4:36 AM

    I experienced panic attacks when I was younger and only the other day one came on – I felt as though the air had been knocked out of me and I couldn’t breathe, only lasted a couple of seconds as I was able to compose myself. Don’t know what’s changed between childhood and now, maybe now I know it’s nothing to worry about??

  • Jenna

    Jenna

    February 10th, 2011 at 1:48 PM

    Shouldn’t it still hold true that something holds no more power over us than what we allow them to have?

  • TERRY

    TERRY

    February 10th, 2011 at 7:37 PM

    Jenna:It is true. But it’s just that a person needs a lot more resolution to overcome something within himself and many people find it difficult to bring together the resolve required in the eye of a storm like this one.

    But then there are options to overcome and professionals that can offer all the help to overcome this.

  • Panic Attacks

    Panic Attacks

    March 3rd, 2011 at 12:55 AM

    Prescription treatments may be an option you need to explore. Prescription therapy basically has two approaches. Onset medications can be used to curb the attack right when it happens

  • Shellyiam

    Shellyiam

    February 1st, 2013 at 2:32 PM

    I’ve had panic attacks at a few different times in my life. I’ve found that once I took a look at my life and found what the root cause of the problem was that after I made the changes needed my panic attacks went away. When I was younger I couldn’t always recognize an unhealthy situation I was in. It wasn’t until my stress levels were so high that I started to have panic attacks that I realized something was wrong. Since the panic attacks were so awful it also gave me a great desire to change things so the attacks would eventually stop. Of course I eventually learned to recognize stress and unhealthy people/ situations way before it got to that point.

  • Cyndi

    Cyndi

    February 1st, 2013 at 7:24 PM

    We can learn to “Block” the progression of a panic attack–wow. How? I heard trauma can be desensitized — so, please share more.

  • sarah

    sarah

    April 8th, 2013 at 7:37 AM

    i am curious about the statement that all therapies involve exposure. i am a 3rd year trainee in integrative psychotherapy in the UK starting some research into panic attacks. My interest stems from personal experience. i am learning how past traumatic relational experience and insecure attachment experiences can be subtly triggered in the current environment and provoke panic. it may be that insight, awareness and positive relational experience in non-exposure or CB focused therapies is also effective in addressing panic attacks.

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