What Happens During a Panic Attack

May 16, 2017

I used to be one of those people who thought panic attacks were over-dramatized for the sake of attention seeking. I know how horrible that sounds, but admittedly it was a reflection of my ignorance on anxiety and its severity. I’ve come a long way from my teenage naiveté, and since then, experienced a few panic attacks of my own. Let me tell you: they’re not pretty.

Everyone experiences anxiety. That’s a fact. Whether it’s during a job interview, on your wedding day, or at the thought of public speaking, anxiety creeps its way into your nervous system and makes its presence known. But chronic anxiety sufferers persistently experience these emotions. Sometimes, it leads to panic attacks.

Years ago, I experienced a panic attack. It happens to the best of us. In fact, health experts say it is common. But here’s where it gets tricky – I was asleep.

Apparently anxiety doesn’t wait to strike when it’s convenient, or appropriate. It can come on at any time, even when you’re sleeping.

Imagine randomly waking up in the middle of the night with a rapid heartbeat, night sweats and a feeling of impending doom. Well, that happened to me twice and it was one of the most difficult sensations to grapple with. A trip to the doctor’s office confirmed that abnormal levels of anxiety were causing nocturnal panic attacks.

Basically, my body was in flight-or-fight mode, even as I was in the calmest state of sleep. A stressful period caused me to have subliminal and persistent anxiety to rouse me from my sleep.

The most challenging part of a panic attack is getting them under control. Remaining unphased is perhaps the most effective means of conquering panic attacks. While you are panicking, acknowledge that you are scared and that your body is physically responding to this fear. Do not try and interfere with these sensations.

Allow yourself to accept it, experience it, and remain unresponsive. It takes a great level of reserve (and practice) to not induce further panic with this level of fight or flight sensations. For example: if your heart is beating a mile a minute, rather than trying to run, or worrying about having a heart attack, remain calm and assure yourself that it is simply a response to fear and nothing more.

What do you actually do during a panic episode?

Look for an escape

It’s hard to understand, but during a panic episode your gut instinct is to seek safety. Somehow the urge to get up and quite literally escape the situation is a coping mechanism for many. Here’s the caveat: no matter where you find yourself, it’s the mind and its state of distortion that you need to change not your physical surroundings.

Perhaps the most difficult of realizations is that running will only make the panic chase you. Emotions respond to adrenaline. If you view your panic as a threat, it will gain leverage and intensify. Panic is not tangible, and is an internal mechanism fuelled by response and perception. You cannot run from it because it is birthed from within. Just as you cannot escape a disease, you cannot run from your mind.

Negative associations with places or situations that cause, or might potentially trigger a panic attack is extremely common with a panic disorder. This can become extremely troubling and incite greater avoidance techniques and ruminations. It’s important to detach from these associations because they enable your anxiety to persist. One way of getting past this is to accept that panic is a state of mind and not relative to the space you are in.

All-or-nothing thinking

Cognitive distortions can rule the mind of those with anxiety and panic disorders. The idea that your panic will not subside is the friction that ignites the fire. Remember when I said I felt a sense of impending doom? Well, during a panic episode you feel that nothing will change as you are experiencing these overwhelming emotions and sensations. This panic episode will send me to the emergency room. Nothing good will come from all or nothing thinking.

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