Let’s be clear. I am no neuroscientist, but this is how I would explain an extreme physical response to a threat:
There is a very small, almond shaped part of our brains called the Amygdala.
The Amygdala would appear to be the brain’s ‘Early Warning System’ and sets off an ‘alarm’ in response to danger.
See the vicious dog. Run fast!
For some people, the danger or specific fear does not have to be an imminent threat. It might be something as subtle or benign as thinking about going to the supermarket.
The supermarket is crowded and this makes me feel anxious.
At the same time, the alarm bell goes off, which in turn provokes some unpleasant physical symptoms:
Shortness of breath (overbreathing)
Pins and needles
I have a thought, “I’m sweating and dizzy. I will pass out and people will think I’m weird”. This provokes even more physical symptoms.
These are the fight/flight/freeze symptoms and once upon a time they helped us to sprint away from the sabre toothed tiger: overbreathing and raised heart rate (sending blood pumping to the big muscles I need to sprint) dizziness (refocusing straight ahead in the direction I need to leg it) nausea (if I vomit I will be lighter and run quicker) and the list goes on…
If you experience these symptoms and there doesn’t appear to be a immediate and real danger and you don’t have a physiological issue that might account for these symptoms, you are most likely experiencing a panic attack.
Not only is this physically uncomfortable but it provokes thoughts about not being able to cope, being judged by others or that we are going ‘mad’. The dread about future panic means that we may avoid any potential trigger, e.g. crowds, exercise, work and this avoidance confirms our mind’s belief that these everyday, safe and normal activities are in fact DANGEROUS! In some cases, before we know it, even leaving the house can be a challenge.
You may well be one the thousands of people who experience sudden, unexpected and intense fear, and in some cases terror, in everyday situations. It may be hard to pinpoint exactly what event started off the panic. It could be that you have always been quite anxious and the anxiety has bubbled over into panic?
Panic can be debilitating but there is help available.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help you to examine your thoughts and behaviours connected to anxiety and panic and support you whilst you face perceived threats. Basically, CBT aims to challenge your catastrophic and unhelpful beliefs and reset your panic thermostat!
CBT is available through your local NHS IAPT service – you can self refer or go through the GP. CBT is also available privately through accredited psychotherapists.
There are many interesting self-help books around, including Don’t Panic by Reid Wilson. (I don’t get paid to plug his book, I just think it’s a good one!)
Please remember that feeling anxious is part of being human and that it can happen to anyone…
The most scared I’d ever been was the first time I sang at a rugby match, Australia versus New Zealand, in front of one hundred thousand people. I had a panic attack the night before because people have been booed off and never worked again… just singing one song, the national anthem.
Hugh Jackman (Australian actor, dancer, singer, producer and human being)