Mary’s chest is beating fast, she can’t breathe, is gasping for air, and she believes she’s having a heart attack. This is a very common thought when this is someone’s first time experiencing a panic attack. You cannot have a panic attack and a heart attack at the same time. Why do panic attacks happen? The mind is very powerful and cannot tell the difference between what is imagined and what is real. Let us first discuss anxiety.
Anxiety is when you experience intrusive thoughts of worry or fear about the future. A panic attack occurs because the mind believes that you are in danger and the body responds. See the body gets its cues from the mind. The body cannot rest if the mind is in distress. They are supposed to work together but there are times when they are not in harmony and that is where the conflict arises.
The mind has this built in alarm system and works well for us to get us out of danger. For example: You walk into your home but the alarm doesn’t go off and you hear noise. Your internal alarm will kick in and tell you there is danger, adrenaline rushes in and tells you to get out of danger, and run as fast as you can. Once you are in safety the alarm goes off. Your breathing slows down and your body is no longer in distress with the physical symptoms. That incident was a threat.
The problem is that when anxiety occurs there is no real threat. There is an illusion of a threat. Let me give you another example. Joe goes to class and his teacher tells them to take out a pencil and they are going to have a pop quiz. His thoughts go like this:
“Oh no, I don’t have a pencil, I’m going to have to borrow one but what if no one has a pencil, what if the teacher gets mad because I don’t have a pencil, I didn’t study, matter of fact I don’t have my book, I stayed up all night I’m tired, I’m going to flunk this test, no I’m going to flunk this class, I’m going to flunk out of school.” Joe’s hands begin to sweat, he feels that he can’t breathe, heart begins to beat fast, and he has a panic attack right in class that lasts a few minutes. The anxiety came from thoughts. That is how powerful the mind is.
I do understand that Joe may fail the quiz. But it is not a serious threat that warrants the physical symptoms like being held up at gunpoint or being in a terrible car accident. It is not normal for the mind to have a panic attack over a quiz. This could be someone’s normal if that has been a habit yet not a healthy habit.
The other way panic attacks occur is through associations. A lady was robbed 5 years ago and the guy used a knife. On yesterday she went to eat hibachi and had a panic attack at the dinner table. Why? Her emotional mind believes the event from 5 years ago is still happening. It’s not the same event nor the same knife but to the emotional mind all knives are a danger signal, a threat.
If you have experienced panic attacks or anxiety, evaluate if they come from thoughts, associations or both. Use breathing to calm down your emotional mind or picture a serene place so that your emotional mind can understand there is no real threat and can send that message to your body. Contact a therapist that specializes in anxiety disorders.
Sonya Waddell is a licensed professional counselor right outside of Atlanta, Ga. She is the author of “Single Ladies: Living Holy in a Sexy World” which can be purchased on Amazon.