The foundations of the panic reaction are with us from an early
age: observe the small child 'jumping' when startled at being caught out in some secretive act. And this instant energizer is not always helpful and it's not always
the appropriate response we need to survive. A drowning man, panic-stricken, charged by energy to survive, thrashes around in the water when he really should be keeping
still and trying to float.
Panic, whether helpful or not, can happen automatically when we are in danger. It's our inner-self's way to make us avoid harm and it's not just about actual
immediate physical danger.
In panic our heartbeat can speed up to over three times it's normal rate, but panic symptoms are not just physical. We often experience a sense of dread and a
fear of losing control; like anxiety, panic is also mediated by our thoughts. It is a two-way street: panic induces thoughts of dread and fear over losing control, and thoughts
of dread and fear of losing control induce panic. This can be seen in the potentially confusing situation where panic can occur just before falling asleep or as we attempt
relaxation. But why on earth should we panic in such situations, when there is no danger?
Well, as we fall asleep or start to relax we are giving up control and letting our guard down. We are releasing all of our vigilance and preparedness and could be
attacked whilst our defences are down. Here, the danger is only a perceived possibility (again based on our inner feelings), but potentially a very dangerous one
for we are not in a position to defend our self.
For some, panic attacks become the focus of their problem.
Our heart beats so fast that our chest shudders – we can hear it, we can feel it. We are breathing rapidly, our shoulders are raised and tense, our legs feel like
jelly and our arms and hands tremble so much that we can't keep them still. What's wrong with us? Why is this happening?
We feel sick and want to go to the toilet, our mouth is dry, it's hard to swallow and we are sweating. A dark fog of dread grips our mind. The more we think about it
the worse it gets. And the thoughts... we cannot stop them. What if something happens and I can't cope? What if I fail? What will I do? Part of us knows we
are blowing things out of all proportion, but... what if?
Once this happens, no subsequent panic attack is really 'out of the blue' for it affects us so powerfully that there will always be apprehension about it happening again.
And what of our first panic attack, does this really come from nowhere?
There is little difference between extreme anxiety and panic, and any anxiety that builds up can turn into panic. The physiological changes in our body are the same; these
can start slowly and intensify to a high level as a result of anxiety or hit the higher levels almost immediately in panic. Most people who suffer from panic attacks
come to them with a higher background level of anxiety, often stemming from conflict.
A person who is anxious and alert is already some way towards panic. They are, in a sense, 'primed to panic' and any stressful incident can set it off. Many of these incidents
are the normal stresses found in life and cause mild anxiety in most people, but if we already have more underlying anxiety, the combined stresses can fast lead to panic.
Research has shown that negative life experiences often precede many panic attacks(1). This is something perfectly demonstrated
in many examples of panic disorder in which the first panic attack that leads to this 'disorder. is often preceded by the death of someone close.