1. Don’t worry, It’s all in your head.
No, panic attacks are real -physically real and everybody has and can experience them.
Panic Attacks are an explosion of chemicals released into the brain engulfing our normal responses. It drives us towards three (not two) types of actions. Those chemicals can make our bodies do two things.
- Drives our blood from our organs and into our heart and muscles so we can run away or fight the flight or fight response we hear about all the time when people talk about panic attacks.
- Freezes our blood exactly where it is so we cant move.
So when the chemicals are released in our brain we physically either run, punch something, or do absolutely nothing. It is definitely not made up nor is it controllable- when it first happens.
Punching something or running away does release those chemicals in our bodies to a certain extent and we do this in situations that require them – our reaction to an angry dog or man has all the hallmarks of a panic attack but our bodies and minds know we can and should escape or protect ourselves, if we do either then we fulfil the role those chemicals play and we are likely to avoid that situation again.
But there are situations where running away or punching someone isn’t going to work, and cant be done. these are times where we freeze, every muscle in our bodies tightens, our heart pounds like a Japanese drummer and our brain experiences the worst ice-cream headache possible. We can’t talk and we can’t react. We know something is threatening our lives directly or indirectly and we cant do a thing about it. that threat maybe a spoken one, an ethereal one but it is real and our bodies react to it.
2. You are still in control, always in control.
Nup, you cant really expect yourself to control what is going on at that first instance.
Like those plane disaster movies where the pilot battles with the controls and get through a bad situation but it is still there and we will need to deal with it. We gain back control over our bodies, we don’t have control to begin with.
After that initial rush we may be in a better position to deal with this chemical rush. Most of the time (not all of the time and good luck choosing between the two) we will be able to start thinking about what our body is doing and how we can extract ourselves from the situation or calm the muscles down so that blood starts to flow around our bodies more normally (get them back into the stomach)..
3. All you need to do is breath deeply.
This is not the worst piece of advice out of the five but it is still wrong. Panic Attacks have a long lasting impact on our memories and future responses when faced with the same or similar situations in ways may never truely understand.
Breathing is a muscle relaxant technique (which is why the advice isn’t horrendous). It does ignore one crucial factor with panic attacks though. Panic attacks are literally shock treatment learning, quickly become behaviours that have echoes in other areas of our lives.
One echo is having a panic attack about having a panic attack. If you have never experience this then count your self the luckiest person alive. Panic Attacks are physically painful, they involve our whole bodies and like a child who has been bitten by a dog, our behaviour changes quickly to wanting to avoid having a panic attack ever again. So, as that poor child would have an emotional response to going near a dog after being bitten, we try to avoid that pain. if your only tactic is “Just breathing” it isn’t going to work. You need something stronger.
4. Just avoid the situation.
What situation? The original panic attack may have been caused by an event which may or may not be controllable but this misses the point of what a panic attack actually is.
In the first instance – you wont be able to avoid it, or you wouldn’t have had that panic attack to begin with.
In the following instances (having a panic attack about having a panic attack) the “situation” moves with you, you carry that situation around like a backpack strapped to your shoulders- so how do you avoid it if while avoiding it you carry it on your back.
5. You will outgrow it.
No, no one “grows out” of panic attacks. They learn ways of coping or managing panic attacks and the anxiety that proceeds them. Panic Attacks are learnt behaviours and any leant behaviour can be changed by learning other behaviours. This can be done by someone without assistance but, for the same reasons why we went to school to learn how to read and write instead of being forced to sit and stare at Hamlet until we could read and understand it, finding a good teacher is the best and quickest way of learning these new behaviours.
So what is the best advice?
If you live with panic attacks know that these are real and physical in nature, get some help from your doctor and a counsellor, don’t be ashamed of them and actively train yourself to manage your anxiety which leads up to a panic attack. Finally, forgive yourself if you have one. You don’t have control over them, you gain control over them.
If you have someone you want to give advice to about panic attacks then just hold off speaking out unless you are a professional. Believe that they are happening, and in particular believe that the anxiety your friend is feeling at all times is real -physically real. Help them get professional support and learning, and be patient, you probably didn’t understand Hamlet until you hit senior high school. Overcoming panic attacks is a similar journey, don’t expect your friend to understand and over come it in anything like a short period of time.
This article was inspired by two of my friends who are going through this issues right now. Stay strong and keep working at it mates.