Understanding the bewildering symptoms of a panic disorder

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Panic attacks can take many forms. They can be triggered by any number of things:

1 medication

2 nightmares

3 PTSD (a serious condition caused by physical and or psychological trauma)

4 phobias

5 depression

6 prolonged stress

7 illness

8 medical procedures

9 social anxiety

10 insomnia.

11 obsessive thinking. Example: “What if some terrible thing happens? Then what will I do?”) I call this involuntary self-torture Looping.

12 Nothing at all. (I know. Crazy. Sometimes the body gets panicked for no apparent reason).

And while panic attacks are generally harmless, the cascade of symptoms they set off in the body are enough to send a person to the ER.

A panic attack happens when parts of the brain (thalamus+cortex+amygdala) overreact to sensory input (loud noise, sketchy person, medical procedure, a horrific event), or mental stimuli (“What if?” “And then what?” “I’m losing it.”).

Basically, a panic attack happens when parts of the brain (thalamus+cortex+amygdala) overreact to sensory input (loud noise, sketchy person, medical procedure, seeing a horrific event), or mental stimuli (“What if?” “And then what?” “I’m losing it.”).

Regardless of whether you’re dealing with a top-down process * (thoughts triggering panic), or a bottom-up process* (sensory data triggering anxious thoughts triggering physical symptomes), the results are the same. The stress cycle kicks in, causing your mind to check its files for what could possible be causing such dreadful symptoms.

As your mind scrambles frantically to figure out what the hell is going on, the questions it asks you begin to spin out of control. Here are some of the usual suspects:

“What’s happening?”

“I think I’m having a heart attack!’

“I feel like jumping out of my skin!”

“Something must be terribly wrong for me to be feelings this bad.

“I must have stomach cancer.”

“Oh, no! What if I die and my kids have to get along without me?”

“I’m not psychotic, so why is my body going crazy?”

This is the Stress Cycle, our primitive, 100% natural, survival reactions kicking in when we perceive a threat to our mental or physical symptoms. Basically, it’s a runaway train fueled by adrenaline, and kept alive by anxious thought.

A panic attack is when the Stress Cycle keeps firing when there’s no relief. As Claire Weekes (Hope and Help for Your Nerves—the best book ever written on anxiety) says, “Anxiety is nothing more than oversensised nerves kept alive by bewilderment and fear.”

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