In my book, An Anxious Kind of Mind, I write the following about panic attacks:
“One resource defines panic this way: Panic is a sudden sensation of fear so strong as to dominate or prevent reason or logical thinking, replacing it with overwhelming feelings of anxiety and frantic agitation consistent with an animalistic fight-or-flight reaction.
Mark Sichel, a licensed clinical social worker, provides this helpful extrapolation:
“Many child development experts believe that early infancy can be a very scary time. Just imagine a 3-year-old playing in a sandbox, weighing about 40 pounds. He looks up and, instead of seeing his mother, can only—even for a moment—see other children and frightening adults all around him.
Translate the weight difference into adult terms: for a tantamount experience you would have to be surrounded by a throng of beings who weighed 700 pounds each and stood 4 times as tall as you. That’s exactly how minor dangers are perceived during a panic attack.”
The word panic refers to Pan, the Greek god of the woodlands. Apparently, a chief form of entertainment for this dastardly fellow was making spooky sounds that scared the bejeebers out of unsuspecting passersby.
To earn the official title of panic attack, evaluators look for at least four concurrent symptoms. These include heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, feelings of unreality, and several other such physically- and mentally-anguishing characteristics. I am on a first-name basis with many of these unwelcome intruders.
As in my case, most people experiencing their first panic attack believe they are having a heart attack, or perhaps a nervous breakdown. What’s actually going on is that, whatever the trigger, the body’s parasympathetic nervous system is throttling up its “fight or flight” protocols. The main fuel for all this activity is epinephrine, otherwise known as adrenaline.
This is good news in an actual emergency situation. Adrenaline provides needed alertness and energy to deal with a genuine threat. But in the case of a panic attack, there is no real emergency or threat. Unfortunately, the panic victim’s brain has a mind of its own, and it chooses to bypass rational thought during the event. Surging biochemicals push the thought and body processes in the direction of a worst-case scenario. This intra-psychic alert system can be a godsend when spotting a hulking shadow in a dark alley. We are suddenly prepared to fight or flee, whichever seems more likely to preserve our life. But in the absence of a crisis on which to focus its energy, panic tends to become the threat itself.”
Panic attacks are scary, but you know what? They’re not dangerous! They are self-limiting. Your body will go through a brief cycle—sometimes as little as 30 seconds—and then things will calm down again.
I don’t mean to minimize the fear associated with panic attacks. And sometimes medication will be a necessary ingredient as you struggle to deal with this challenge in your life. But I want to reassure you of one thing: during a panic attack, you are not going crazy, and you are not dying. You will be just fine.
Panic attacks, of course, can be part of a larger picture that needs to be addressed. I invite you to learn more in my book, An Anxious Kind of Mind.
Get Speak the Words right in your inbox.
Sign up and get weekly updates of our latest stories.