What is Panic? Why Does it Happen? How Can it be Stopped?
You are aware of some strange sensation in your body usually brought about by tension. You become worried about it because it arrives unexpectedly. Rather than seeking out the source of the tension, you seek out the source of the fear. “Why am I feeling afraid?”
But your past worries had known reasons! You also knew “fear” from experience as something related to your environment.
If someone threatens you, you may fear THAT person! If you see a highway CAUTION sign you will worry about driving carefully. But for a newly felt sensation like a racing heart, rapid breathing, muscle ache, giddiness, blurred vision, headache, nausea, etc. – all possible symptoms of stress overload – once you assign an unknown source label to it, you have created a conflict within your conscious logic of how to react to the fear.
This NEW fear doesn’t seem to have a reason, a source, a purpose! It arrived seemingly out of the blue! Because of the unknown nature of this new fear, you analyze it and the worrying becomes more pronounced. You may begin to extend your new unknown fear feeling into your future well-being with “what if” questions – hypothetical situations to determine how you might feel in the future IF the same fear existed. The worrying seems endless as you cannot identify the cause. You begin to fantasize about odd possibilities like tumors, cancer, glands and aneurysms. At this point you feel threatened for your life or your sanity!
Meet Your SNS
This threat launches another bodily function which takes over your worrying for you – the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) which is responsible for your survival. This is the “BIG GUN”! It stimulates heartbeat, raises blood pressure, dilates the pupils, dilates the trachea and bronchi for breathing, converts stored glycogen (starch) into glucose (sugar), inhibits digestion and movement in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and inhibits contraction of the bladder and rectum. In short, makes you ready to RUN! Through this flight/fight response it socks you with a rapid and intense fear so powerful that your immediate response is to run and/or hide. But you can’t! You don’t know why or where to run. This is the inherent contradiction in panic.
The SNS is not controlled consciously by you. It is influenced by your thoughts and beliefs but it is independent of your control. It is a part of your instinctive brain. And this is perplexing because in the past your fear feelings had identifiable situations or sources. These were ones you could avoid or change.
Panic is really your SNS now in charge of your worrying. You can’t stop it. You have no conscious control over it once it kicks in. At this point trying to exert control only makes it last longer. Conversely, by trying to NOT stop it makes it stop. This, I believe, is the way out.
It’s important to note that this can happen to anyone at any time. It is not related to how weak minded or sensitive the individual is. I have emails from miltary personnel, fire fighters, politicians, sportsmen who are all confused as to why they have these panic feelings. They keep fighting the panic and their own SNS.
The SNS is your protection, your survival albeit overblown for today’s modern stresses. As you increase your worrying and focus all your thoughts and energy (stress) on the unknown reason, the SNS has to take over. Extreme stress initially produces a physical reaction which initiates extreme worrying which prompts the SNS response once you feel threatened. That’s its job that developed over millions of years of evolution – WAY before the industrial revolution, the fast pace of the new age, and cell phones. A higher degree of worrying warrants the survival mechanism of the SNS. It’s nature. It’s what your body is supposed to do in response to your fear.
The SNS needs to be fed a continuous supply of worry/fear to stay alert and active. The fear of panic essentially becomes the reason for the SNS to react. A circular process for sure. By letting the panic go on without preventing it you are showing your SNS and your instinctive brain that it needn’t worry, that it isn’t necessary. That the panic it produced for you to “save you” is overblown for the given situation. There really is NO impending doom. When you face what you fear (the panic) totally and willingly, the SNS process shuts off and the panic shuts off.
This is how simple it is! And why you must completely stand down when panic occurs and take the opposite track. Not away from the panic but towards it – allowing it to “kill” you. You have NO control over it. All the analyzing and wishing away the fear feeling can’t work. It, in fact, will do the opposite. The panic is your body’s mechanism for survival. But if it is at the wrong place at the wrong time you have the means of proving that it is not needed and, in effect, switching it off.
Additional Information by David Daish – Author of the book “Fear”
As you all know, once you get into an increasing anxiety state, it feeds on itself and escalates – the emotional cascade it’s called – where fear piles upon fear, and panic ensues. What bugs me most about this development is that I KNOW what is going on, yet I so often feel completely powerless to stop it. It seems to take on a life of its own and you get carried away by it. No amount of reasoning with it will work.
Then I read something that set me thinking. It was in Aine Tubridy’s book, When Panic Attacks. She is talking about PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I realised that what she had written about, held the key to understanding normal fear and anxiety. She talks about the primitive fear response that is the basis of all panic:
“Its aim is not only to prompt you to find safety, but it will remain in place until it is certain that the danger is over and that you will not be exposed to a similar experience before you have fully recovered. Once you are out of danger, the focus shifts to a risk of a future occurrence. Your internal bodyguard means to see that you don’t become complacent or relaxed for some time yet, to ensure that you stay ‘on alert’ should the danger return unexpectedly – the alarm will only cease when your primitive brain is completely satisfied that you are not in danger any longer and that adequate safety measures have been put in place for the future.”
What she is saying here is that you have to PROVE to the primitive brain that the danger no longer exists. ONLY THEN, will it stop the fear.
How do you prove it? This is what Jeff has written here, what Dr. Weekes said before him. Panic is fear of the panic, apprehension of it as Jeff has so often said. Your primitive brain senses your continual apprehension of the feelings of panic, it remembers the terror you initially felt when you experienced panic, it does NOT want you to have to go through it, it wants to protect you from it, so it keeps you on alert – for AS LONG AS YOU FEAR THE PANIC.
You keep telling yourself that panic is to be feared and dreaded, that all the many feelings, thoughts and experiences of fear and panic are to be avoided at all costs. You go to extraordinary lengths to avoid them all. All this behaviour reinforces the notion that panic and fear are dangerous, so your primitive brain has to keep you on alert, to watch out for fear’s approach.
Yet the supreme irony of it all is obvious; it is the feelings of fear themselves that are perceived as being the danger. The protective response of your primitive brain IS the danger that you are keeping it on alert for!
This we know. As I said, we can reason with this forever. We can understand the vicious circle completely, yet STILL we are battered by fear and panic.
This comes back to proving to your primitive brain that there is NO danger. And to do this, you HAVE to go through the fear, to EXPERIENCE it, to show yourself at the feeling level that it really is NOT a danger to your survival. More than this, and this is the basis of what Jeff says, you have to positively encourage the fear to come, to demand that it gets as bad as it can- and to mean it. Only then, will your primitive brain give up.
This level of your brain cannot distinguish between actual and perceived threats. It knows that you have been frightened. It remembers what has happened to you. It knows that you continue to be afraid and it has to keep on being on alert because you keep telling it that you are in danger. It responds exactly as if you have been through some external trauma insofar as it keeps on replaying all the terrifying experiences you have had of panic.
In my own case, my fear of panic is related to my main phobias – health phobia and emetophobia, fear of vomiting. I grew to fear panic intensely because when it came, it felt as if I would be sick. It never has made me sick, but the fear of it happening has remained. So too with fear of illness, I become terrified of what I might be going to experience physically. It can be anything, often very trivial such as feeling very tired, or even having a headache. The “scared” days I mentioned at the beginning usually result from escalating fear that I am becoming ill with something – something that will be very dangerous.
The other important aspect of it all is sensitisation – the hair-trigger response of your nervous system through repeated firing of the fear reaction. With this, fear comes too quickly and too intensely. This state is the heightened state of alert Dr. Tubridy refers to, the intense apprehension of what might happen next. This state will lessen by itself ONCE you begin to diffuse the fears you have, once you begin to prove to your primitive brain that there ARE no dangers.
In practical terms, what happened was for me to turn on my fears and confront them, to goad them into manifesting all the catastrophic expectations that they were telling me I was going to have to experience. I got up with a headache that gradually got worse. I didn’t feel like eating. I began to breathe too fast and, as always happens, the adrenaline began to pump. Late in the afternoon, the number of “What ifs” had grown beyond all reason. I felt sick to my stomach.
So what did I do? I made myself eat! I thought, “OK, you are telling me I shall be sick, well I am GOING to eat this food, so do your worst!!”
The sickness went away. I had successfully demonstrated to my primitive brain that there WAS NO DANGER. And I did it by going right into the fear.
So, with ANY fear, you can do the same, to actually invite the worst to happen. And it won’t!
I read so many accounts here of those who live in dread of the particular way fear manifests itself in their lives, be it panic, or anxiety or phobias or whatever. For those who have never faced their fears, it can seem impossible even to imagine doing so. Others who have done so, will often ask, “Well I have done it, I have faced the fear, but why does it still keep coming back?” I have done just this myself. You try to figure it out.
But in so doing, you are, once again, analysing for the purposes of avoidance, you are once again treating it as a threat. Your primitive brain has been on alert for so long, as Dr. Tubridy says, it means to stop you from getting too relaxed or complacent too quickly – just in case. If it picks up on the fact that you are regarding your returns of fear with suspicion, then it thinks the danger has not yet completely gone.
So it maintains the heightened state. But with repeated, successful facing of fear, with the “utter acceptance” Claire Weekes talks about, it gives up. To accelerate this giving up, actively seeking out the fear, actually TRYING to make the feelings worse, all that Jeff has explained here, works wonders.
I think all this explains why it can all take so long, why we lose heart too quickly when the fear doesn’t immediately go away. Why, unfortunately, we can take the path of relying on medication to switch the fear off.