Have you ever had something terrifying happen to you? Can you recall your feelings? If you’re like most of us, you can point to the specific situation or event that caused the distress. But what if there is no situation or event? What if you experience this feeling of fear, terror, and confusion while you’re simply sitting in your office at work?
When Chris had his first panic attack that’s exactly what happened. He told me that he was in his office with a coworker, and all of a sudden the room started spinning, his heart was pounding and he began sweating profusely. He literally thought he was having a heart attack or dying! What did he do? He fled. He drove himself to the ER where they did all kinds of tests on him, and never diagnosed the problem. This left him all the more anxious and confused--- and terrified it would happen again. This is not an unusual scenario.
Chris and I shared something in common. We both suffered with panic disorder; but it wasn’t until I became a counselor that I began to understand it. You’re probably thinking---great you’re a therapist and you have an anxiety disorder! That must be a real practice builder. The truth is, I use to have an anxiety disorder, so it is a great practice builder, because if I can overcome it I can teach other people the necessary tools to manage it.
Setting the Stage
So, let’s talk about how anxiety disorders develop. Let me say this before you jump on the ban-wagon thinking that you have one --- talk to your doctor about the symptoms you’re having. Other medical conditions can create feelings of anxiety, such as hypothyroidism, and hypoglycemia. So make sure to check all this out.
There are several things that set people up for anxiety disorders. The first is heredity. There is strong empirical evidence to show that if anxiety disorders or depressive disorders run in your family, you’re more likely to develop them. In other words, you develop the general personality type that predisposes you to become overly anxious. While heredity may cause you to be born with a more reactive nervous system, environment pulls the trigger. That means, even though you may not have experienced a panic attack until your late twenties, some things may have been in play from the time you were young. These would include such things as:
- Overly cautious or anxious parents
- Being overly fearful
- Excessively high standards being imposed on you
- Emotional insecurity
- A chaotic home
- Alcoholic home, a home where life was consistently unpredictable
- Abusive home
- Too many life stressors
What would constitute a life stressor that could lead to panic?
- A significant personal loss
- Death or divorce
- Job loss
- Underlying personal themes and purposes that necessitate the anxiety and panic
- Significant life changes that would include moving, going away to college, having a baby, going into the military, career changes, or dealing with an illness
Attachment theory tells us that when the security of our attachment figure (parent’s, spouse, or child) is threatened---we are wired for alarm. Separation or loss of our attachment figure can cause extreme stress or duress.
Drugs and/or stimulants can also precipitate a panic attack.
So notice what’s going on in your life---and in your heart--- because you can’t change what you don’t notice.
To sum up, hereditary vulnerability, coupled with cumulative life stressors-- can cause stress overload and set you up for anxiety or panic
What the Heck!
So what happens? Why are people who have had a panic attack so terrified? The first thing you should know is that panic is a normal bodily response in the face of impending danger. God created it that way so that we could respond appropriately when threatened. So we’re hard wired for a fight or flight response against threat. Primed by the danger signal, your adrenal glands release a large amount of adrenaline and other neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine, causing you to feel the same sudden” jolt” you feel when you slam on your brakes to avoid hitting a pedestrian. That excess adrenaline can cause an elevation in blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, sweating or shaking as well as muscle contraction. Some people feel numb or pressure in their chest, leading them to believe they’re having a heart attack.
It’s believed that a defect in the inhibitory receptors of the neurons in the part of the brain responsible for putting on the brakes---simply do not work properly. These neurons become excited and yet they lack the ability to calm down. With all these chemicals pulsate thru your bloodstream and your central nervous system, your body takes a hit. After the attack, you may feel completely drained. That’s how Chris explained it.
The other thing that’s perplexing to people is that the attack seems to come out of the blue. Chris was just sitting in the office working when all this started. He couldn’t identify anything that had previously happened that upset him or caused him to panic. But as we talked further, it became clear he had been under stress overload. His stress bucket was full and overflowing.
We don't know what causes the dysfunction in the area of the brain responsible for panic attacks, but remember, what we do know is that stress overload is a precursor to anxiety and panic. Especially when you have the personality type that lends itself to being anxious. The most effective way to deal with this is to consistently reduce the stress in your life.
You’re probably saying “Are you kidding me! You don’t know all the responsibilities I have.” But the truth is, you have to make a choice to be intentional and deliberate with this, or you’ll continue to struggle. One of the easiest ways to de-stress is muscle relaxation, and most importantly, deep abdominal breathing. Breathing is the key. You need to learn to do it, practice it, and notice when your anxiety level is first beginning to rise. That’s when you’ll want to begin the practice. I have included 2 relaxation exercises on the resource page that will teach you how to do deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Practice them every day.
If you or someone you love is suffering from anxiety, panic disorder, OCD, or post-traumatic stress, encourage them to see a therapist; one who specializes in anxiety disorders. Healing isn’t only possible, it’s highly probable. But you need to get help. Many people think they can manage this on their own, and maybe some can. But the majority of success stories come from folks who have learned and practiced the skills necessary to overcome their fears and beliefs.