The many faces of Anxiety – Panic
Last time, we looked at how It’s possible to have similar thought patterns to diagnosable mental health conditions, that cause anxiety or distress, while leading a ‘normal’ (even though there’s no such thing!) life, with a focus on obsessions and compulsions. Today, let’s delve into what panic is, what thought patterns might underlie it, and how it manifests in our day to day lives.
We as humans have evolved, but unfortunately our alarm systems, or anxiety, haven’t always kept up. Anxiety is crucial, vital information about the world around us and how safe it is and can be really difficult to dismiss or evaluate as irrational. Just like any good alarm system, it’s active 24×7 and doesn’t really have an off switch. This alarm can ring slowly and develop gradually to reach it’s crescendo, such as anxiety, or arrive all at once or develop really rapidly, like panic. You might have come across the term panic disorder or panic attacks, but what are they, really?
A panic attack is an episode characterized by sudden, intense, overwhelming, seemingly life-threatening anxiety, with bodily reactions like sweating, palpitations, dizziness, numbness, chest pain, sweating, etc. These physical sensations are accompanied by thoughts of doom, imminent death, and/or being completely beyond help or control They might be a response to a specific thought, sensation, or emotion or without a tangible cause, and can last for up to 30 minutes. Now, this might sound extreme and slightly unrelatable, but let’s look at the pattern that underly panic attacks. At its core, panic is characterized by misinterpretation and magnification, leading to catastrophization (assuming the worst possible outcome is the most likely).
For example, someone might have had a rough day and just climbed a few flights of stairs. They might notice their heartbeat going faster than normal. Here, instead of attributing it to the physical exertion, they may misinterpret it as a heart attack, and begin to focus solely on this sensation, leading it to feeling all encompassing, and the thought of a heart attack going from very low probability to much higher. Now, as their focus grows, so does their concern and fear around it, leading it to spiral and feel utterly trapped by the situation. Sounds familiar? Let’s look at this thought pattern at a non-pathological level. Say we are on our way to the airport to catch a flight (or an important appointment like a job interview, work, etc.) and you encounter traffic. Now, we know that we can’t really do anything about the traffic other than just wait, but we start to prophesize and ask anxiety inducing hypothetical questions – what if I don’t get there on time? What if I miss my flight/appointment etc.? The possible negative outcomes feel infinite., and the consequences seem very big, and we feel helpless to prevent them. We might not develop severe physical symptoms or have thoughts of dying, which separate this from a panic attack. The same 30-minute journey might feel like it lasted for hours and was an uphill workout, that’s how exhausting it can be!
Thus, panic in daily lives is characterized by sudden, intense anxiety or overwhelm over something that feels really important, and we are too overwhelmed by the fear to think about the solution. However, with time and a few simple techniques, we can help ourselves feel better. A few questions you can ask yourself are:
How probable are my what if scenarios? How do I usually feel when I let my mind go down these spirals? How absolute is this deadline? What lets me know I’m feeling normal or back to baseline? What helped me feel that way?
If anything you read today feels familiar, and you too would like to discover your patterns and heal from them, please book a free 15-minute consultation with us at The Trauma Healing Center. We provide virtual as well as in person therapy, accessible for those in Mississauga, Toronto, Brampton, and Oakville.
Mental Health Professional
Member of OAMHP