August 8, 2016

How to Make Sense of a Panic Attack

Do you know what a panic attack is?

The Scream

For many people who experience one, it feels like shortness of breath, a racing heart, sweating, shaking, nausea, chest pain, and/or a sense of “depersonalization” – the surreal sense that you’re no longer fully rooted in your body or its surroundings.

Sounds like a blast, right? No. Not fun.

Beyond the symptoms though, do you know what a panic attack really IS?

There’s a diversity of opinions about this, but the best explanation that I’ve ever heard is that a panic attack is a ton of repressed emotion that’s bubbling to the surface in full force. You could almost imagine that it’s like taking the cap off of a fire hydrant; all of the water that’s been trapped underneath the surface comes bursting out with a vengeance.

Because the symptoms of a panic attack can be virtually identical to a heart attack, it’s always recommended that you go to the emergency room for a physical evaluation if you’re experiencing those symptoms for the first time – but beyond getting an electrocardiogram, do you know how to tell whether it’s panic and not a heart attack?

Whether there was any preceding situation or event that triggered intense emotion.

Now, that may sound obvious on some level, but here’s the challenge: a lot of times that emotional event or trigger is not as obvious as we might think that it is. For a lot of people, it feels like you’re having a heart attack because the underlying emotional trigger is happening outside of your conscious awareness.

You see, a lot of people have the subjective feeling that panic attacks are physical. That’s partially why many people want to take medication to treat them. It just FEELS so medical, right?

But panic attacks are not, generally speaking, brought on by pure neurochemistry. They’re brought on by the emotional content of our lives – they’re actually an amazing example of the mind body connection.

And what makes them hard to understand is that our minds like to play tricks on us. It’s our brain’s natural tendency to minimize emotional challenges. As they say, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Well, neither is repression, projection, compartmentalization, or reaction formation – which means idealizing the people we love so that we don’t have to acknowledge trickier feelings like anger or resentment. (Pro-tip: It’s totally OK to feel angry at the people you love; no close relationship is sunshine and roses everyday.)

Furthermore, the culture that we live in feeds us messages that only make our emotions harder to understand. Focus on the positive, think about what you’re grateful for, don’t complain about first world problems. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a HUGE fan of some well-deployed gratitude, but it’s surprisingly easy to use it as a tool for self-flagellation, and that I am not a fan of.

If I were to give you one tip that could lessen the possibility of you having a panic attack, it would be this:

Give yourself permission to feel your feelings – all of them. Don’t question whether they’re worthy. Don’t judge yourself as self-indulgent.

Understand that almost everything in life is subjective, and that your feelings are not necessarily The Truth – other people in your life can have differing opinions and, believe it or not, that doesn’t necessarily make either one of you wrong – but your feelings contain their own emotional truth inside of them, and they become decidedly easier to manage when we stop trying to make them go away.

Categories: Psychotherapy and Coaching | Tags: , , , , , |