The Panic Cycle: Feeding the Monster

            Panic Disorder is something that only a small portion of the population will experience in their lifetime (about 3%). Panic attacks, however, are much more common. As many as 30% of people will have at least one panic attack during their lifetime. Panic attacks are made up of symptoms such as shortness of breath, racing heart, chest pain, shaking, sweating, dizziness, hot or cold flashes, feelings of unreality, and nausea. Add to that intense fear, usually of dying, going insane, or losing control, and a panic attack is far from a walk in the park. One of the most challenging aspects of coping with panic attacks is that, in many cases, they become a self-perpetuation experience; this is known as the panic cycle.

            Basically how the panic cycle works is that the panic causes physical symptoms, those symptoms cause fear, which causes more symptoms. So for example, say that someone (for the purpose of this example, let’s call her Jill) was experiencing a panic attack and had shortness of breath, racing heart, and chest pains. Jill might think that she was having a heart attack and about to die. The fear of dying would make Jill’s heart beat faster and her chest hurt more, which would confirm to her that she was, infact, having a heart attack. This would lead to more fear and more symptoms and it would go round and round until Jill was exhausted and the panic attack was over.

            This self-feeding cycle is also what can change panic attacks into a panic disorder. Panic disorder is when an individual both has panic attacks and is afraid of having more, so they avoid situations or places that they think could trigger a panic attack. This leads to what is known as the “fear of fear.” So Jill had her panic attack where she was afraid she was going to die of a heart attack. She may come to believe that even though she didn’t die last time, next time she just might. This fear of having a panic attack can actually trigger the panic attack. That can then lead to more fear around having a panic attack and, consequently, more panic attacks. 

            Often, one of the first steps when helping someone cope with panic attacks is education. By realising that the symptoms are caused by panic and not by, say, a heart attack, one can stop feeding the panic and break the cycle. Say Jill is going about her day and starts to feel her chest tighten and her heart rate pick up. In the past, Jill might have worried that she was going to die. Now, however, Jill is working to break the panic cycle and instead reminds herself that panic cannot hurt her and the symptoms are harmless. This, in addition to using other techniques that she has learned helps Jill calm down and prevents her panic from getting worse.

Having panic attacks can be a difficult and frightening experience, but help is available. If you or someone you love is struggling with panic attacks, it might be a good idea for you to seek the help of a licensed counselor, who can help break the cycle of panic as well as teach you other coping skills. Hurley Counseling has a range of therapists and appointments available. Give us a call at 251-222-8880.

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