Panic attacks or anxiety attacks as they’re often called are a very common occurrence and becoming more so everyday. In fact, according to www.thehealthcenter.info as much as 10% of people will suffer from them at some point in their lives and with the ever increasing stress in our lives, that number will likely grow. Yet, in spite of how common panic attacks are, when you’re suddenly faced with one, it can seem like you’re the only person in the whole world suffering this torment. Seconds feel like hours and if you have them often enough, then just the fear of having an episode can be enough to provoke another one. Before you know it, you find yourself in a hellish loop wherein the fear of an attack, causes you to have an attack, provoking more fear of another attack, in turn provoking you to have them more often. It’s pretty much a nightmare scenario that can be crippling for anyone to go through.
On the surface of it, it’s easy to see why these episodes are so unpleasant, they’re meant to be so. The very purpose of fear is to put you on edge and make you avoid the situation that your mind associates with danger.
Symptoms of panic attacks may include:
Shortness of breath
An unshakeable feeling of impending doom
I’m sure I don’t have to go on many more examples of symptoms, chances are, if you’re reading this, then you’ve experienced them yourself.
The emotional after effect that these episodes can inflict are often as devastating as the experiences themselves. Often times people that experience panic attacks find themselves avoiding anything and everything that they think may provoke an attack. Of course as more and more things become associated in the subconscious with panic, you can find themselves in a situation where you’re virtually painting yourself into a corner. Pretty soon panic can lead you to avoiding even the most mundane of situations. If and when you get to this point, then it’s called agoraphobia.
To make matter worse, many of those who suffer from frequent and repeated panic attacks are all too often too embarrassed to seek help. Just the idea of having to go to therapy being labeled as crazy, or cowardly by those around us is enough to dissuade many from getting help and instead they try to cover it up for as long as they can. This is especially evident for guys, we have a tendency to avoid help because we’re socially conditioned to want to tough things out. “Therapy is for women and the weak”, at least that’s what I always thought. I certainly wasn’t prepared to accept being labeled as weak. As a former marine, there’s much I can tolerate but being called weak wasn’t something I could accept.
With that being said, frequent panic episodes and even agoraphobia can be overcome, but doing so takes a little bit of courage and a lot of discipline. If you’ve got that, then you’re off to a good start.
First thing to know about fear is that to the best way to overcome it s not to fight it, far from it, most who try that just make it worse. In fact what you must do is the opposite: you’ve gotta embrace it!
I know it sounds crazy but people do it all the time. What’s the difference between the rush you feel at the onset of a panic episode, and the one felt by a skydiver as he’s plummeting to the earth? Really it’s nothing, physiologically they are the same thing. In response to a perceived danger your body releases adrenaline. The only real difference is perspective The sky diver sees this rush as a good thing, something to be enjoyed, where as the one suffering from panic does not. When I realized that fundamental difference is not only when I started to learn to stop fearing fear, but learned to love it. Actually, became more of an adrenaline junkie. Like I learned in the Marine Corp: “adapt and overcome”. I found myself in a situation, I adapted to it, and I overcame it, and you can too.
So how does it work? Simple, it breaks down into 4 parts:
1. Establishing what exactly a panic attack is.
2. Establishing what are the consequences of an episode
3. Establishing what it is that we are ultimately afraid of
4. Learning to love the rush.
If you can follow these four steps, I guarantee you that not only will you be done with panic attacks, but you’ll actually miss them. If seven years ago, anyone told me that I’d miss having panic attacks, I’t say they were crazy, but it’s true. Once you learn to love the rush, it becomes weaker and weaker, till eventually it’s nonexistent. But if you want to get there, just follow these steps
1) Establish what exactly a panic attack is?
First of all, let’s stop calling it an attack. Right off the bat, you’re going to be in negative territory, when you describe your situation as being under “attack”. If you really are under attack, then panic, or at least fear is certainly warranted. Instead, let’s call it what it really is, a rush of energy, a rush isn’t nearly as terrifying as being under attack, now is it?
Fear in itself is not bad, it’s a perfectly normal reaction to a dangerous situation. Let’s not forget that only a few thousand years ago human beings, as a species were seriously in danger of becoming cat food for some giant saber-tooth! And just a few hundred years ago, as a result of war, disease, violence, etc., very few humans made it into their 40’s. Disease and rival villages were a very real concern that all of our ancestors had to contend with. With such serious environmental concerns as these, it was the fight or flight response that kept many of our prehistoric ancestors alive.
But what is the fight or flight response?
At its simplest, it’s your mind perceiving danger, followed by your body releasing a flood of adrenaline to either fight to the death or run like the wind. That’s it.
OK, fine but why do people today have panic attacks? For most of us, these kinds of real dangers aren’t a problem anymore, save for a few unlikely and unlucky instances:
This is true, but that prehistoric hard-wiring is still there, just waiting to be set off. And sometimes, maybe mistakenly, your mind makes a mental connection between, a place, a thing, a situation and danger, and when this happens, the fight or flight response can be set off. Even if there’s nothing to fight with or run from.
That’s all this is, you feel panicked because you’re getting a rush of energy, and you don’t know what to do with it. Your body is reacting to a situation of mortal danger, and you might be doing something as mundane as sitting in your car, stuck in traffic or walking through the mall, or preparing a presentation for work, etc. Many times just knowing what exactly it is you’re going through is enough in itself to stop an episode in its tracks.
Imagine at the onset of an episode, if rather than referring to that strange sensation as being attacked by panic, you thought of it as what it was. A rush of energy, something to be enjoyed, enjoyed that is till it inevitably goes away. You see, these are two very distinct perspectives on the same situation. And the one that you experience may depend entirely on your choice of wording.
2) Establish what the consequences of an episode really are?
It may sound like as silly question, but if you really take the time to think about it, you’ll realize that it’s not that silly. What really happens when you have an episode? In the heat of the moment all kinds of terrible consequences could be going through your mind, if you’ve had them before you know that those don’t actually happen, you’re just scared that they might. You’re worrying about the worse that can happen, despite it not happening.
My point is that now you know that this sensation is nothing more than a rush of energy, a complete brain-fart that’s the result of a faulty connection. And if you’ve had them before, ask yourself: how do they usually end? Most of the time they simply end with the excess energy dissipating away and you being left there emotionally and even physically drained, but little else.
In one of the more extreme situations, you may end up in the hospital, being treated as hypochondriac. Now, agreed, that does suck, but is it the end of the world? In the grand scheme of things, who really cares? I’ve had many terribly embarrassing situations in my past, and I suppose I’ll have a few more in the future. And you know what? So will you. Who cares? The consequences of your next episode are almost certainly going to be the same as the consequences of your last one: . Much ado about nothing.
You see where I’m going with this? You’re getting all bent out of shape over consequences that haven’t happened before, and are unlikely to ever happen caused by nothing more than a rush of energy.
When you sit and really think about that, coldly and rationally, you’ll come to realize, I’m right. But for arguments sake, let’s think about what it is exactly that we’re scared of.
3) Establish what it is we’re ultimately afraid of?
Ultimately we’re all really scared of the same thing: death, our end. Heidegger referred to anxiety as the emotion that made us realize our finitude, what would ultimately lead us to living an authentic existence. I believe he’s right.
I personally have been to the ER on a number of occasions for “panic induced heart attack symptoms”. On more than one occasion, the heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and other symptoms had me absolutely convinced that I was dying of a heart attack. Even when I tried to tell myself: “it’s just another panic attack, its just another panic attack…”, I still ended up in the hospital, fearing for my life. I wasn’t really scared of a heart attack of course, no one really is scared of that. It’s actually the death that follows the heart attack that I was completely terrified of.
But after a while I started to think about it, so what if I died. In the big picture sense, am I an intricate part of the cosmos without which all of existence would cease? Nope. Though I’m very important to a few people, in the big picture sense, I like everyone else on the planet am just another finite being. I’m not suggesting you develop a nihilistic death wish and go do stupid things like play Russian Roulette. Life is precious and should be enjoyed to the last moment. But fearing death is like fearing the sun rising tomorrow. It’s going to happen whether I like it or not. In the case of the sun rise of course, we know when it’s going to happen, death isn’t usually as predictable, but still, it’s coming. It’s just another inevitably of our existence so there isn’t any sense in worrying about it. That’s when I realized that fearing it was about as pointless a task as any other I could think of.
I know this may sound strange, but it’s really quite liberating when you think about it. We have to enjoy life, and make the most out of every moment, but we also have to be cognizant of the fact that it will end. Preferably it will end a long time from now with little incident, but even if it’s not that way, who really cares? We each may have our own beliefs about what awaits us in the the inevitable next stop of existence, even if that stop is complete nonexistence, but regardless of what we believe, once we’re there, does it really matter how we got there?
If you’re still following, now you see that these silly little episodes that we let ruin our lives are just rushes of energy. Rushes that lead us to worry about consequences that haven’t happened and in all honesty, probably wont happen. But, even if the worst of our fears happens, it’s out of our hands anyway, so who cares.
Life is short and beautiful, enjoy it!
4) Learn to love the rush!
If you’ve managed to take the first 3 steps in this process to heart, then there’s one final step to living an anxiety free existence which is: Loving those bursts of energy that we get. This step is a little more complicated because it’s very individualized. What everyone does with their own bursts of energy is unique to that individual.
For me, I traveled. I packed my bags, got on a plane to Spain, and just left. I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t have a job or place to stay lined up, I just left. The flight over was terrifying. I had the beginning of one of the worst episodes ever as I sat in that plane, on the runway, waiting to take off. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to just rip off my seat belt, bolt for the door, tug on the handle and make a run for the terminal. But as petrified as I felt. I stuck it out. I remembered, that this “panic attack” was just a rush of energy. I wasn’t in any danger, none whatsoever. I’d felt these emotions a millions times before, and if I gave up now, I’d feel them a millions times more. And then I thought about the alternative to staying on that plane. Getting off might have resulted in me temporarily calming down, but at what price. Did I really want to keep living this way? Could death really be worse than life under these circumstances. I didn’t think so. I decided to just let what will be, be.
Meanwhile, as I grappled with these thoughts, the plane taxied to the runway, bit by bit, creeping up to the point of take off. But as I felt the engines really start to kick in, when it was evident that the captain had pushed the throttle, a sensation of complete calm took over me. I didn’t try to fight my fear, I just accepted it. After a few moments of peace, what should have been complete agony turned into absolute excitement, and not the bad kind. I felt free. I was absolutely free to do whatever I wanted. Having been limited by fear for so long, I felt the way a prisoner must feel when suddenly freed from confinement. Life went from a terrible burden to a series of adventures and the only thing that had really changed was my perspective on fear.
I’m not going to say that that flight was the last instance of nervous energy I ever had. It would be some time before I could say that. But that was the glorious beginning. From then on, anytime I felt anxiety, fear, bursts of energy, I new I was doing something that pushed my boundaries. This led me to a series of adventures, wild, passionate adventures, that I can honestly say I may not have had, had it not been for my previous episodes.
So you see the, the first 3 steps serve to prepare you. Use that nervous energy to push you to do something that you’ve always wanted to do. What have you always wanted to do? Pick a dream and go for it. I always wanted to travel, see the world, however when I developed a “panic disorder” or agoraphobia (I hate these terms, they seem like something that exist so that shrinks can charge you $100 an hour for years) I thought I would never be able to travel the world. But when I learned to use that nervous energy in my favor, the world opened up to me, and if you learn to embrace that energy, not run from fear but rather chase that rush, you too can see how you can use that energy to make the world open up for you.