Panic is an uncontrolled fear response that usually occurs due to a threat or perceived threat in the environment. However, a panic attack can occur ‘out of the blue’ – for no reason – and this is partly why they can be so frightening and upsetting. The overall feeling is one of being out of control of your body – an unpleasant feeling in any circumstances.
What happens in the panic response is actually the body’s fight and flight response kicks in – it is actually an adaptation to allow us to either escape danger or stand up and fight as strongly as possible. The hormone adrenaline is released from the adrenal glands and causes an increase in heart and breathing rate, under natural circumstances this would help oxygenate our muscles so that we could escape or fight effectively. However is a panic attack the symptoms get out of control because a vicious circle is set up as I will describe in a moment.
My panic attacks mainly occurred in Poland while I was on my own, teaching English at a small school. What usually happened was the panic started out of the blue A vicious circle is set up because you can’t stop it or avoid it. Heart rate goes up to very high levels and breathing rate as well – symptoms of hyperventilation (breathing that is too quick) such as dizziness and faintness start to happen, also chest pains caused by the extreme beating of the heart can happen- all further contributing to the panic.
These attacks took about 30 minutes on average – what I remember most is the terror of being out of control of something as basic and critical as the heart – coupled with the discomfort of my heart almost leaping out of my chest – along with – on top of all that – the fear that the chest pains and other symptoms might signal a heart attack (cardiac arrest) or some other life threatening problem.
I have heard of other people having panic attacks abroad – especially when they are alone. It may be just the constant low level anxiety of being alone and in unfamiliar circumstances that build sub-consciously until it finally sets off an attack. After all – the panic system is there to help us survive and escape threats of some kind – so this gradual build up of perceived threat finally triggering an attack might make sense.
Treatment of panic attack can be achieved very successfully within a few hours by a cognitive therapist using the right techniques. My tutor at Oxford – I won’t name him, said he could successfully treat a panic attack patient in 3 hours of therapy. The technique is very simple and aims to break the vicious circle of panic I described by teaching the patient to consciously slow down their breathing rate. This reduces the symptoms of faintness etc caused by hyperventilation, thereby reducing the panic, hence the heart rate drops as well, so the heart symptoms (e.g palpitations) reduce – and the panic cycle is broken.
This technique is relatively easy to apply in any situation where panic occurs – best of all the feeling of control of heart and breathing rate returns, which is the psychological key to beating the panic. The therapist will also try to reduce your perception of threat by explaining that we often feel threatened by something that is absolutely harmless (a shopping mall full of people is a common example). The breathing technique and the reduced perception of threat can quickly cure the patient from suffering the physical and psychological discomfort of panic attacks.
It’s great to know that such a cure can be achieved so simply, quickly and effectively through an intelligent examination of the condition and the steps necessary to overcome it. Three cheers for Psychology!