Many people who experience panic often avoid situations where a potential threat exists. There are no tigers or prehistoric monsters anymore which are going to jump out of a bush and eat us. Today’s threats are psychological, such as your boss shouting at you, arguing with a friend, stressful news, etc.
Panic attack sufferers often try to leave a place that is fearful, for a place they perceive as safe such as home or another person. A common action is for the sufferer to avoid a place which is likely to trigger attacks.Where this is unavoidable the person will undertake some action to try and make their life easier. For example if their legs feel wobbly they will find somewhere to sit and if they feel anxious in one place they will move to a ‘safer’ area.
It is not unusual for people to end up in Accident and Emergency out of total bewilderment. Having all these unpleasant sensations makes them think they need professional help or something terrible will happen.In short, Panic attacks cause intense fear and these in-turn produce uncomfortable body sensations such as a pounding heat and sweating.
Accompanied with these attacks are racing negative thoughts which tend to exacerbate the situation. These thoughts include I need to escape or I’m going to die. The attack my last minutes or go on for much longer and leave the person feeling anxious and tense. The body also feels very drained of energy once the sufferer has calmed down and started to relax.
Why do we fear?
As stupid as it sounds if you’re experiencing a panic attack your mind and body is not trying to harm you its try to protect you. What your experiencing is a fearful reaction to what your mind is interpreting as a danger in front of you. The problem is a person who is experiencing a panic attack is having an extreme fear reaction. This is because the person’s body has become extremely sensitized to certain things such as crowds, driving on busy roads, social interaction, etc.
The purpose of fear?
All animals (including humans) have built in fear instincts and this is how they survive and live to fight another day. If a mouse breaks cover out of the long grass into an opening and sees a shadow getting larger and larger over it from a hawk getting nearer, it would run as fast as it could back to cover to escape. If a wolf jumps out from a bush and chases a baby buffalo it will run as fast it can back to the herd and then the herd with gather together and charge at the wolf. The wolf will then in-turn run for its life. This is the ‘Fight or Flight’response in action. In this situation our bodies take over and prepare us to run or do battle. The body will –Increase breathing so more oxygen reaches your muscles to help you fight or run
-Your heart will beat faster so more blood is carried around essential organs.
-Your muscles with tense up ready for you to spring into action to meet the challenge
-You will sweat as the body need to cool down your body when you exert yourself
-Your digestive system and salivation will slow down because you will not need to eat in this situation as your body concentrates on other things.
-The mind will tell you to escape a situation because of impending danger and you will not able to concentrate on even simple tasks.
-The pupils of your eyes will widen to let in more light to make you more aware of any danger close by. This often leads to the eyes becoming sensitive to light and visual things such as watching TV can make people more fearful.
The problem with the above is they help when you need a physical response when faced with a physical threat.But when you start to feel panicky because your mind has determined there is a threat in a meeting, in the middle of a crowd or in a queue; these physical sensations are unhelpful and debilitating. When the body is panicking it gives you the best chance to run away.
However when you can’t move away because you’re in a meeting, social situation, etc. , your mind floods your body with hormones with all sorts of uncomfortable side effects. This leaves a person irritable, feeling strange / peculiar, and avoiding situations you use to enjoy.
As shown above these responses are crucial if you need to fight or run.These physical reactions in your body have evolved over millions of years to protect you in the right situation. The problem is in the last few hundred years there has been a revolution in the way we live our lives.
Before this time we would have lived in simple communities and the main worry would have been food and shelter. So venturing out to obtain these things may have been hazardous and required the ‘fight or flight’ response to escape other tribes or wild animals.
Nowadays people will spend hours sat in cars on busy roads, only to sit in a highly charged meeting. Or we will watch TV with non-stop action and violence. We will go shopping in large busy shopping malls where we are bombarded with things.
For leisure we may drink alcohol and queue for hours to get into a concert of thousands of people and then eat fast food on the way out.If you have been under a period of stress, for some people, their bodies become sensitive to these situations and perceive these psychological threats as needing a fight or fight response. In other words our bodies are not working as they should and are firing off panic responses in all sorts of inappropriate places. This is of course happening at totally the wrong time,and what the human brain is doing to our bodies is exactly what we don’t want.
It is worth mentioning that these reactions are completely normal if you think about them.They are completely needed in certain situations, such as if you need to save someone from drowning. A runner before a race would almost certainly feel nervous but he would use this to his advantage to run a faster race.We are all unique and for some people periods of stress may not result in this response, but they may suffer some other form of reaction such as depression, inability to sleep, etc.