It’s easy to picture a panic attack as this big mean monster, whose sole purpose is to steal the joy and excitement out of life, replacing it with fear, dread and hopelessness. However, panic attacks aren't an entity on their own; they are simply an automatic biological response, just like breathing.
Have you ever had an adrenaline rush? That feeling you get when your legs are wobbly, your heart is beating in your ears, you’re sweating, and/or feel like you could throw up? Adrenaline rushes happen to everyone, whether it’s from riding a roller coaster, running away from a swarm of bees, or swerving to avoid a car accident. An adrenaline rush is a surge of energy, and they exist for one very important reason – to keep us alive. The stress hormones released during an adrenaline rush (like adrenaline and cortisol) increase our likelihood of survival in dangerous situations by increasing our heart rate, our breathing rate, and our reaction time so we can run or fight our way from a threat.
What we feel during a panic attack is simply an adrenaline rush (also known as the fight or flight response), a surge of energy designed to help us survive. The funny thing is our brain can’t tell the difference between a physical threat, like a mountain lion, and a perceived threat, like watching a horror movie. This means that anytime we feel fear or worry, whether it’s a deadline at work or presentation for school, it can initiate this fight or flight response. We live in the Information Age, our threats have shifted from lions and tigers and bears to worrying about financial stability, job performance, relationships, etc. So, while a panic attack often feels like it “came out of nowhere”, it’s often the result of threats we can’t see or touch and therefore can’t fight or flee from, rendering the fight or flight response pretty much useless now a days. In the absence of a tangible threat, our brains go a bit haywire and assume the normal sensations we are feeling like heart palpitations, nausea, and sweating are the result of something more dangerous, like a heart attack. This is where panic attacks gain power, when our brains misinterpret the typical sensations of the fight or flight response into “Oh my god, I’m going to die NOW!!!” Panic attacks are one of the most terrifying and uncomfortable sensations a person can experience, so after that first one, it’s not uncommon to fear the next one, and the next one, and so on until it becomes a “fear of the fear” cycle.
As a coach I help my clients break that fear of the fear cycle. I've been there myself; it's not a fun place to be. If you want help overcoming your panic attacks, feel free to reach out through my Take Action page.