Managing Panic and Anxiety Attacks

In my work as a psychotherapist over the past decade I have come into contact with so many people who live with intense experiences of terror, fear, panic and anxiety.

In this article I’m not talking so much about worrying, feeling tense, nervous or stressed. Not to diminish how difficult those experiences can be to live with , but I feel like they need different approaches.

I’d like to offer a some simple information  about what’s happening in the brain and how we can directly, impact and alter a panicking brain and consequently a panicking body.

When we are feeling truly absorbed by fear a series of neurological events takes place. Firstly imagine the brain in three parts. Just to make things super simple, front middle and back.

Front = higher executive functioning,so all the smart stuff, negotiating, complex meaning making, reflective and critical thinking, decision making, etc etc etc…

Middle = memory and feelings

Back = the smoke alarm, responsible for sending and dealing with perceived threat.

Now of course it’s a lot more complex than that, but for our purposes let’s look at things in this simple way, so we can begin to untangle what’s going on when we are overwhelmed by big and difficult feelings.

First off, that smoke alarm can be a bit faulty, often from over use, or from one off shorting out of used in an extreme situation. This means it can become either over sensitive or not sensitive at all. Like a real faulty smoke alarm, it either goes off for burnt toast and cigarette smoke or doesn’t go off at all even in a raging fire. I’ll talk about that smoke alarm that doesn’t go off at all in another article.

For now, we’re looking at the faulty alarm that goes off all the time when we don’t need it to. So there’s the first problem.

Second problem. When that smoke alarm goes off, it takes a lot of our energy to do so. This means that front part, that clever bit that might be been able to reason and think it’s way out of this overwhelm of feeling is OFF LINE. It either goes down super low, or goes off altogether.

Let’s just stop for moment and give some thought to what that means for us. If we cant think, choose, reflect and process information, we are lost. Hence that feeling that you are literally consumed by the feelings, panic, distress terror.

Thirdly. That smoke alarm that now going off like crazy, has a set of protocols it puts in place for dealing with this ‘perceived threat’, and it’s going to begin by flooding your body with a whole load of drugs to help you deal with that perceived threat.

Drugs like adrenalin and cortisol to name a few. They’re going to get you ready for running or fighting. If those don’t work or don’t seem like they’ll have a positive outcome the brain might choose, freeze, the play dead option, I may talk about the freeze option in another article. For now we’re still with that hyped up over sensitive smoke alarm, the thinking brains switched off or on super low capacity, and we’re flooded with chemicals.

These chemicals are built to be used. If they aren’t, because the threat is perceived and not real (no lions really chasing us:)), they might make your heart race, perhaps even so much so you feel very real chest pain, your digestive system over active, your mouth dry, your vision swim, your hands sweat. You might feel shaky, sick or even faint, to name just a few of the bodily experiences these chemicals can cause.

Here’s the key to finding our way out of this state. This process described is one that we call top down. The information came from the brain and flowed down through the nervous system activating a physiological chain of events that will by now, be leaving you in a really bad state that feels truly unmanageable. Really bad!

So, the key is, we need to reverse that process and send messages from our body up to the brain, to let it know, all is in fact, OK! There are loads of ways to start sending new message from the body to the brain.

Quick ways include changing how your breathing, moving in time with slow breath, using visualisations, stimulating all the senses, smell, touch, sight, sound – helps switch our frontal lobes (clever brain) back on fast, and really important, how your body is moving!

Changing how your body is positioned can quickly change your state of mind. Research shows that standing in an open, shoulders back, chest raised, chin up feet straight forward, front of the body pulled up, back body relaxed downwards, elbows away from the ribs, this position can actually lower your stress hormones being produced in the brain, in the moment, and if practiced daily, it can have real lasting affects of how our brain functions.

It’s great to practice this alongside any breathing technique you’ve found and like! The position your looking for can be found in yoga standing poses like, Tadasana (or Tadasana with hands raised up, elbows at out at right angles at shoulder height, palms face forward and open is also a nice position) as well as if you consider how a super hero stands 😉

Give movement a chance, if you’re body holds a position of fear on a daily basis that becomes your bodies habit, and that position tells the brain life is scary, so the brain does it’s job and gives you loads of stress hormones.

Stop that cycle, start your daily practice of moving differently today.

Jessica Calvo MBACP (Accred) Psychotherapy, Counselling and Supervision

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