I’m sure you know what it feels like to be nervous or anxious. We have all felt that during our lifetime. It can be triggered by stress at work, deadlines, conflicts with others, politics, bills, driving, parenting…the list goes on.
When anxiety reaches an intense level, it's called a panic attack. This can be very frightening when it happens. A panic attack has at least 4 of these symptoms:
Heart is beating fast or pounding
Trembling or shaking
Shortness of breath
Feeling like you’re choking
Chest pain or discomfort
Dizzy or lightheaded
Fear of losing control or going “crazy”
Fear of dying (am I having a heart attack?)
Numbness or tingling
Chills or hot flushes
Some of these symptoms can mimic a heart attack. It's important to know that a panic attack is usually not a sign that there is a heart problem or that you’re dying. By all means, get your heart checked out to rule out any physical problem, but 95% of the time, it is panic/anxiety that is causing you to feel this way.
Let me explain…
The anxiety symptoms are caused by stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol – that are running through your body. This is how it all begins. The anxiety is triggered by something – a thought (it’s not safe to fly, I’m going to lose control, you got that email from the boss, I have too much to do today). Or if you have been exposed to a past trauma, you may be triggered by something you see – an ambulance, the accident scene, the abuser, the building where the incident occurred. There can be many types of triggers.
So the anxious mind is triggered by a thought, a sensation (pounding heart), or past situation and this sends a signal to a very primitive part of the brain (the amygdala) that there is danger. The amygdala sets off the flight or fight response to help you react to the (perceived) danger, and pumps the stress hormones through your body. Blood flows away from the brain to the extremities. Logic is gone and compassion and empathy are gone because we feel unsafe. The brain is literally hijacked by anxiety.
Panic can feel like there is a lion in the room.
The amygdala is trying to protect you so you can either fight the dangerous thing or flee from it. Some people tend to freeze (their mind is going 100 miles an hour, but their body freezes up).
In any event, the fight or flight response (aka panic) is a false alarm. You are not really in danger. There is no lion in the room. But the primitive brain doesn’t know that and thinks the danger is real and happening now.
So when the stress hormones are running through your body in an attempt to “protect” you, that is what causes the symptoms – pounding heart, sweating, trembling. The stress hormones literally shut down the digestive system and sends all the adrenaline to your arms and legs so you can fight or flee or freeze because this can keep you safe when there is real danger.
But what if the panic is random?
Sometimes people have panic attacks and can’t pinpoint what the trigger was. The anxiety randomly appears out of nowhere and this is unnerving. Some people have panic attacks when they're sleeping and wake up with a jolt of panic. So then fear of panic can become the thing that triggers the panic. Fear of the fear and what could happen if the fear pops up again.
How can I calm the anxiety?
The goal in treating anxiety disorders is to eliminate the fear of the anxiety symptoms themselves. If you no longer fear the sensations and learn to cope with them, you can overcome the panic. If you know it's a false alarm, you can act accordingly and this has a calming effect.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches you how to reframe your thoughts about the overwhelming nature of panic and helps you realize that uncomfortable sensations or thoughts do not equal danger. Panic does not lead to disaster. When you use CBT strategies, it literally changes the chemistry in your brain and you begin to feel better, especially when you know you can master your symptoms.
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or tapping) is my #1 pick for helping people master anxiety, panic attacks, and past trauma. You can practice it when feeling calmer or when the panic occurs. It can help you either way. When you practice even 5-10 minutes of EFT on a regular basis, and focus on the fear you have in a specific situation, this helps reduce the frequency and intensity of the anxiety. Regular practice helps you get to the root of the problem and literally rewires the brain. Tapping calms the amygdala and you begin to feel safe again. When the brain is calmer, you gain a sense of clarity and calmness vs. feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
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Beth Matthews is a Registered Psychologist who is driven to help people feel better about themselves. She can help you if you are struggling in your life. You can learn easy-to-use strategies to help you cope with anything that comes your way.