Imagine it’s a stormy Monday morning — the start of a busy new week. You wake up to the realization that your alarm never actually went off, and in order to have enough time to stop for coffee, you need to pull out of the driveway in exactly 3 minutes. After putting minimal effort into your appearance, you begin the hunt for your car keys. Subconsciously noticing the disorderly state of your surroundings, you freeze.
Suddenly, your heart and your brain begin prepping for a marathon. The temperature in the room steadily begins to climb. Drops of sweat form on your forehead.
Where are my keys? Wow, are my hands really shaking? I am exhausted. Coffee. Shit, what time is it? I have to get to work. Ugh, work…
At this point it doesn’t matter how many breaths you take in — your lungs just aren’t expanding. Your chest feels tight. Your confidence begins to crumble. You can’t go to work. Today is not going to be a good day. It is simply doomed. Notice your heart rate? Through the roof. Can’t take your mind off of it, can you?
An unwavering spiral for what seems like (momentary) eternity.
Where is this coming from? Are these real tears? Am I crazy?
The science behind panic attacks provides us with a perfect example of how the brain can successfully play some tricky mind games… only, played by our own minds on ourselves. Being able to recognize and understand the physical signs and symptoms of a panic attack could potentially help restore your calm.
Though we’ve all most likely been in a situation where we’ve felt threatened or fearful, panic attacks are all the more frightening because a real threat is often unidentifiable (or nonexistent). They can happen anywhere, at any time, for any reason — and they do not discriminate. During the onset of a panic attack, your body’s fight or flight response takes over and your nervous system springs into gear. The hormone adrenaline floods into your bloodstream, putting your body on high alert. Your heart rate increases, sending more blood to your muscles. Your breathing becomes faster and shallower so you are able to take in more oxygen. Your blood sugar spikes. Your senses become sharper. All of these changes take place to prepare your body for a quick getaway or a dangerous confrontation.
Studies have shown that there is indeed a link between suffering from panic attacks and the levels of certain chemicals present in the brain. Different parts of the brain become hyperactive when we sense an imminent threat or danger, telling our bodies that we need to decide whether we’re going to fight or flee. It is very difficult for our brains to ultimately choose which defense route to take when dealing with an unknown threat, so naturally, we over exaggerate how dangerous it is. This tiny malfunction is believed to be the reason we experience feelings of intense fear, or “panic.”
Keeping all of this information in mind, an important first step to take in order to dissolve a panic attack is to simply recognize that you’re having one. This will establish a correlation between the sudden physical effects you are experiencing and why. For the next few minutes, focus on taking deeper, slower breaths to regain some control. If this common relaxation technique fails, try finding a focus object to recenter your mind. Observe all of the tiny details about your chosen object: the color(s), the shape, the size, what its purpose is, etc. On the opposite end, another helpful piece of advice (if you are able) is to close your eyes. This will help block out any extra stimuli from your current environment and make it easier for you to focus on breathing.
There are many helpful resources available for those who may suffer from panic attacks and/or panic disorder. Do your research and ask for help. Brain games are supposed to be stimulating, not debilitating.