Living With Panic Attacks
Hello everyone, today I am going to talk about something that I have suffered from for several years, Panic attacks. The reason I have chosen now to talk to you about it is because although I love christmas, this time of year is one where I experience a higher number of panic attacks.
What Made You Panic?
This is probably one of the most asked questions for someone who suffers from panic attacks and although it often comes from a well meaning sympathetic individuals, it’s not a useful or even answerable question most of the time.
I’ll try to explain what I mean when I say the question isn’t answerable by telling you about my last two attacks.
The first happened when I was out food shopping with my friend Rie. We nearly always go shopping on a Wednesday. Its our chance to catch up with each other, mooch around the charity shops, have coffee and cake and oh yes, do the shopping.
Despite the relaxed nature of the day and the fact that it’s something I enjoy, I felt a little uneasy. nothing I could put my finger on, just not quite right. A bit achy, a little bit sickly. Like I was coming down with something. These for me are the first signs of an attack happening.
There did seamed to be a lot more people around than usual, and everything was a bit crowded, but that was a feeling I got only after the attack started.
The second occasion was when visiting my mum. While sat in their living room, drinking coffee (decaff) eating cake and chatting with her, dad and the hubster I began to feel that feeling again.
Why Do People Suffer Panic Attacks?
What people experience during a panic attacks is the bodys ‘Fight or Flight’ reaction. This usually occurs when they encounters a situation involving a possible risk to them (imagine encountering a burglar in your kitchen one night) and is designed to prep their body either to attack or run away.
The human brain is made up of conscious and unconscious processes. When someone encounters a possible threat the unconscious part of the brain reacts first before the conscious part has registered anything. This allows the body to prime itself for reaction (fight or flight). The conscious part of the brain becomes aware of the situation milliseconds after and assesses the risk. It can shut down the unconscious process if it decides there is no threat.
An example of this is this system in action is the jolt of surprise a person might get when they wake up at night and see something in the corner of the room before they realise its just an everyday object that looks odd in the dark.
It appears that individuals who suffer panic attacks have an overactive fight or flight response. This does not mean that they are unable to react properly in situations that would normally trigger this response ( far from it, we are often the most able to deal with stressful situations with outward calmness and control).
Instead what appears to happen when someone has a panic attacks is the conscious part of their brain is not completely able to override the fight or flight process when there is no threat.
How Did The Panic Attacks Affect My Days
The initial answer is they didn’t. In the first instance I finished my charity shop mooching and them went on to do the food shopping. In the second instance I kept chatting. From the outside I was perfectly fine.
One unfortunate misconception about panic attacks is that they leave you an emotional wreck, unable to function properly while suffering form one, and I can understand why that may be thought. The symptoms of panic attacks are bad.
On the outside I am calm and happy. However on the inside I’m a wreck.
It takes immense effort to put on a smiley face mask while struggling to control the physical symptoms, and they ARE physical symptoms.
Many people think its a condition of the mind, but what people feel are symptoms caused by the release of very powerful hormones into the body ( adrenaline and noradrenaline) that slow down the digestive system ( hence the sickness) speed up breathing and heart rate ( to increase oxygen available to the muscles), and prime the muscles for activity (shaking muscles).
However I know the causes of these symptoms. I know that despite how it might feel, I am not going to collapse, and I know they wont cause me any real harm, so I am able to do what I need to do even when they are occurring. Its a bit like having to go to work with a bad cold. Its not nice, but sometimes you just have to do it.
Why Do Panic Attacks Stop Me From Doing Things?
Due to my knowledge of psychology, I understand what is happening during an attack. I don’t think I’m having a heart attack, or I’m going to die (as some suffers believe during attacks).
However, even though I understand it, I cannot prevent it from happening or lessen the effects once its started ( its a futile as trying to prevent a sneeze).
And I don’t want to experience the symptoms either. To go back to my cold analogy, people would generally avoid carry out activities if they knew would definitely give them a cold.
In short its peoples desire to prevent themselves feeling these symptoms that cause the problem. The thought of doing something that will trigger those feelings can in itself make people fearful and it is this fear that prevents people doing things.
There are two options to dealing with this fear, either accept the symptoms as part of your everyday life and live with it, or avoid the situations that can possibly trigger an attack. a lot of people go for the avoidance route. I do not believe for a minute that they are taking the easy option, leading as it does often to social isolation.
I personally exist somewhere in the middle of the two. While I do not let the condition completely take over and prevent me doing the things I have to do, I have to admit to avoiding situations that I know will make me uncomfortable.
Have you ever suffered a panic attack? If so how do you deal with them?
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*Possibly not true