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What's Really Happening During a Panic Attack

Recognizing the intersection of physical and emotional.

Key points

  • Recognizing the intersection of the physical and the emotional is an important skill for coping with panic.
  • Learning to understand the body's responses can help us feel less frightened by panic sensations.
Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona / Unsplash
Source: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona / Unsplash

Panic attacks are scary. They can make us feel that we are losing control of ourselves, that we are in imminent danger, or that we are experiencing a medical emergency. But the most important thing to recognize about a panic attack is that it is a physical overresponse to an external situation.

For instance, a person who has worked a stressful and busy 80-hour week may feel panicky as a physical response to burnout and exhaustion. While they may feel physiological and somatic symptoms that mirror an urgent medical condition, they are actually safe and not in danger. The body is simply responding in a primitive fashion to the emotions of fatigue and exhaustion. The body is “sounding the alarm” and trying to tell the person something—mainly, to slow down and take a rest.

The key to understanding panic attacks is understanding what the body is trying to say to us when it responds in a panicked way. Begin to look at it as though your body is not trying to frighten you but rather, that it is trying to communicate important information. Here are a few things it may be trying to let you know:

"I Am Overwhelmed"

This is the body’s way of telling us, "There is too much happening right now and I don’t know what to do with all of this stimulus.” Think of it this way: If you were surrounded by constant strobing lights, loud and intrusive sounds, and unstoppable movement, you would likely experience a physical response. You might get a headache or feel lightheaded or nauseous, or some combination of all three. This is similar to what happens physically when we are overwhelmed by thoughts, worries, constant stressful situations, and too much external stimulus.

What to do: It is always helpful to be mindful of what is happening in your life. How much are you working? Are your relationships causing stress? Are you finding adequate time for rest? External stimuli and situations always play a role in our body’s responses. When too much is going on, your body will let you know—and it won’t be subtle. An honest assessment of what is happening will help you to understand why your body may respond intensely and help you differentiate between a non-urgent stress response and a true physical or medical emergency.

"I Think Something Dangerous Is Happening"

Our bodies cannot always differentiate between true danger and perceived danger. For instance, driving on a busy highway during rush hour is not necessarily dangerous, but the body’s response to the speed and busyness of the road may make us feel that we are in danger. When this happens, our bodies will elicit an emergency response in the form of panic symptoms such as accelerated heart rate and palpitations, increased perspiration, and dizziness.

What to do: It is important to tap into your “rational mind” at times when your panic signals are emitting a warning. In the example above, your rational mind might remind you that although the highway is busy, this does not mean there is immediate or imminent danger. This logical cognitive intervention can help curb the panic response and allow your body to slow itself down and return you to a more grounded and calm state.

"I Am Having Trouble Communicating With the Emotional Department"

Think of yourself as having two major “departments” that, most of the time, work collaboratively and effectively: an emotional department and a physical department. At some moments, though, they lose their synchronicity, and their ability to communicate and respond to one another becomes challenged. When the mind and the body are not working in tandem, signals get crossed and the body reverts to a primitive response in the form of panic sensations.

What to do: Always be aware of your emotional state. On days when, for instance, you are experiencing sad or unpleasant thoughts or memories, acknowledge them so that you will not be surprised if your body has a response to these intense emotions. You can gently remind yourself “I am feeling upset today.” This acknowledgment and naming of feelings will help prevent you from drawing an inaccurate conclusion from the physical response to the emotions. This will allow the two departments to return to their collaborative state and reconnect their lines of communication.

Our bodies are communicators of information. Learning to pay attention to them and to understand how they respond to our emotions, our life circumstances, and our current situation is important in feeling less overcome and overwhelmed when we experience intense physical symptoms and sensations. When your body releases panic sensations, its intention is not to frighten you but to tell you something. Learning to listen to what it's saying is a vital skill for reducing the impact of panic.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: DimaBerlin/Shutterstock

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