PANIC: THE BODY’S “FALSE ALARM” EMERGENCY RESPONSE SYSTEM
Having a panic attack can be debilitating in the moment and it may compromise your ability to adequately complete daily tasks, like focusing at work, driving your car, doing activities with your children, or maybe even getting on an airplane. A panic attack may come on without warning, and suddenly you experience a feeling of dread and think, “I have to get out of here” or “Am I having a heart attack?”
When these symptoms occur, it is not uncommon for an individual to be a frequent flyer in his/her Family Health Clinic requesting an EKG or referral to see a cardiologist, or for an individual to present to the Emergency Room for fear that he/she is having a heart attack.
As a psychologist, I often provide education and skills training in response to the following questions:
• How do I know if I am having a panic attack versus a heart attack?
• Why is my body reacting this way?
• What can I do to decrease my anxiety and stop these panic attacks?
• Common physical symptoms associated with a PANIC ATTACK may include: heart racing, shortness of breath, chest pressure, elevated blood pressure, feeling of lump in throat/choking, numbness or tingling in extremities, nausea, dizziness, and feeling hot or cold and clammy. Panic symptoms often have accompanying worry thoughts, such as fear of dying or the worst outcome happening, or fear of “going crazy.”
• Common physical symptoms associated with a HEART ATTACK may include escalating chest pain, pressure/aching in chest, shortness of breath, feeling hot, nausea, and pain/discomfort that radiates from chest to one or both arms, back, neck, and/or jaw. When in doubt, get medically cleared from your physician!
THE BODY’S “FALSE ALARM” EMERGENCY RESPONSE SYSTEM
You have been cleared medically. You come to the conclusion there is another explanation for your symptoms, and you suspect anxiety. Anxiety can be a normal and healthy response that fuels us to action. However, like many things, anxiety sits on a continuum; on one end is nervousness in response to taking a test or public speaking, and on the other end is anxiety so severe it induces a panic attack that impairs ability to function. A panic attack means that your body/mind think you are in duress and therefore all systems engage to propel you into action in order to ensure survival. This is when your fight-flight-freeze is initiated. This is a primal response, and one that is needed if a lion jumps in front of you, or if an assailant attempts to harm you. However, when you have a panic attack you may not have something life-threatening in front of you, but yet your body/mind still initiate this “false alarm” emergency response system to what is actually a misperceived threat. In fact, there is no true danger at all.
Avoidance plays a pivotal role in the maintenance of anxiety. The more you avoid anxiety-provoking situations that have led to a panic attack, the more anxious you will become in response to those triggers. You may start to avoid more events/situations/people, ultimately isolating you from others and decreasing your quality of life.
SHUT OFF THAT FALSE ALARM
There is a physiological reason why your body reacts the way it does. Evidenced based interventions (grounded in research) serve as keys to turning off this false alarm system. Interventions learned in therapy may include:
• Breathing Retraining
• Decreasing Avoidance/Relearning
• Identifying and Challenging Irrational/Unhelpful Thoughts
In therapy, treatment involves understanding why panic attacks occur (mounting stress or history of trauma), learning interventions to decrease physiological arousal, and learning techniques to address thoughts and behaviors to either effectively manage stress or to address post-traumatic stress symptoms.