What Should You Be Doing About Anxiety and Panic?

August 12, 2018

 

If you've ever had a full blown "panic attack," you know it's just about the worst feeling you could ever experience. Feeling like you can't breathe, like you're losing your mind, or like you might have a heart attack? It's probably not your idea of a good time.

We've all experienced some level of anxiety. Panic occurs when the volume of your anxiety is turned up so loud, it switches your nervous system into a "fight or flight" response (sweating, racing heart, shaking, etc). While the sensations may feel like a huge hindrance, your entire body is actually in the process of preparing for a threat – pumping blood faster, releasing adrenaline so you can run, etc. So what should you be doing about your anxiety and panic?

Consider the words: "panic attack." Just by using this terminology, we are already assuming that our feelings are out to get us - They're literally "attacking" us. However, this is a huge misunderstanding. Panic attacks are not attacks. They are the body's way of trying to keep us safe from a perceived threat.

If we stopped using the term "panic attack," how would our perception of high anxiety episodes change?

If you think, "I'm having a panic attack!" This is a panic-inducing statement itself. What if instead you thought, "My body is notifying me that fear is present, and it's preparing me to protect myself if I need to." Big difference, right? The first thought is sensationalized. The second is simply a neutral understanding.

So how do we effectively handle panic rather than giving in to it or pushing it away?

1. First, we have to stop believing that our emotions are something to fear. We have to start treating them as teachers, here to offer information and teach us something about ourselves. This isn't a flowery gimmick; it's really what panic is.

2. Next, we have to listen and determine why the emotion exists. Every anxiety episode is an opportunity to observe and understand better. (This goes for other "bad" feelings you experience too). Even mild anxiety is an underlying fear of something specific. You need to learn what that underlying fear is. Now, you don't have to be Sigmund Freud to find the answer here. Just get curious.

I'll use myself as an example. As a teenager, I started having panic when I was far from home (e.g. in another state) or in tight places (e.g. elevators). In retrospect, I can now see that I had a deep-seated fear of being separated from people in a way I couldn't control. So in essence, I was terrified of being trapped in separation. Any experience that was reminiscent of that feeling was a panic trigger. These triggers send an immediate signal to the body that says, "REACT!" Again, this is simply for your own protection. You never have to be afraid of the panic response itself. It means your nervous system is doing its job. (Don't give the panic response any of your attention, and it will dissipate. Yes, this is hard, but it is fundamental to this process. It does get easier with practice).

3. Once we discover the root of panic, it's much easier to have compassion for ourselves. For example, being trapped and separated would be terrifying! You are not irrational, crazy, or sick for having this fear.

4. Lastly, we can start to look for ways to mitigate the fear and support ourselves. This means seeking out ways to experience the opposite of the root fear. So in my example, what is the opposite of separate and trapped? Connected to others and free. How can you feel more connected to others and free?

This is how we begin to tip the scales and heal panic rather than letting it run our lives. Even if you're can't understand what causes you to panic, cultivating safety in any way possible will help. When you feel panic starting to rise in you, start thinking about what would make you feel safe in the moment. Oftentimes, it will seem irrational or random, like going outside near a tree. Do it anyway. Panic "attacks" may seem awful, but they can teach us how to cultivate safety, trust ourselves and become more independent. From this perspective, they have immense value. 

So basically, the process is: stop resisting, find the root, practice self-compassion, find ways to experience the opposite. Good luck! 
 

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