Our emotions keep us alive by giving us essential information about the present moment. Consider how without anxiety, you’d never prepare for an exam, a meeting, a presentation or anything else. It’s nature’s way of helping us plan for the future. Sadness is also healthy and necessary: it allows us to connect and empathise with others and grieve a loss. Anger motivates us to take action against some perceived injustice.
Sometimes, though, we become prone to extreme forms of emotion. We experience excessive anxiety at inappropriate or unwanted moments. Sadness may become chronic, as if we’re in a perpetual state of mourning for a loss we’re unable to name. Sadness may eventually become depression, and healthy anger, explosive rage.
There are many reasons, from genetics to the environment, why we may be vulnerable to intense emotion relative to others. To better understand extreme anxiety and panic attacks, though, we first need to take a closer look at fear.
Fear is a healthy evolutionary response to danger. It’s the body's alarm system - a survival mechanism that signals the need to evade a threat by running, fighting or freezing. When we’re afraid, our adrenal glands release a surge of stress hormone - cortisol and adrenaline - into the bloodstream. This may cause various physical symptoms:
Heart palpitations and rapid breathing provide the energy and the oxygen the body needs to react to the threat.
Sweating keeps the body cool as you fight or flee from danger.
Trembling is the result of your muscles tensing up as your body primes you for action in the face of danger.
Dizziness occurs as a result of rapid over-breathing (hyperventilation)
Tingling and numbness occurs as a consequence of increased blood pressure.
Nausea, abdominal pain and loosening of the bowels and bladder, which is often experienced as a feeling that you need to go to the bathroom, is the body's way of trying to make us lighter so we can quickly flee danger!
Feelings of unreality (derealization) can occur as a consequence of worrying excessively for a prolonged period of time (‘playing the “what if” game’). The world can begin to feel like an illusion and you may feel detached from reality. This is a common but especially disturbing panic symptom that compels the sufferer to wonder whether they’re ‘losing their mind’ or ‘going crazy.’
We all know how it feels to have a ‘pounding heart’ after receiving a fright from a slightly sadistic but otherwise well-meaning friend who jumps out as us from behind a door. What’s so unsettling about panic attacks, however, is that it’s as if we’ve gotten a fright for no apparent reason. It’s terror ‘out of the blue.’
In the absence of a clear reason as to why we feel so terrified, our minds race to find an explanation for this bizarre experience. That’s one of the mind’s jobs: to find a explanation for the sensations we notice in our body.
Because the experience is so intense - I certainly recall how the first time was unlike anything I’ve felt in my life - our thoughts naturally gravitate to the worst possible explanation. In other words, we start catastrophizing by imagining all the terrible things that could be happening to us.
It’s as if the mind says: “Listen, your body’s reacting the way you would if you were standing face to face with a tiger. But there is no tiger. Oh no...this must mean the danger exists within your body itself.
And so the tornado of catastrophic thoughts begins:
“Maybe I’m having a heart attack?”
“Maybe I’m having a seizure?”
“Something must be very, very wrong, otherwise I wouldn’t feel this way.”
“Something terrible must be about to happen.”
“What if I’m going crazy?”
“What if I’m going to die?”
These racing thoughts create an awful, impending sense of doom. In truth, none of these are accurate explanations for what’s happening to your body. The only accurate explanation is that your body’s alarm system has started blaring in the absence of a real threat.
Panic isn’t dangerous at all. Now believe me when I say I understand that it feels dangerous. But that doesn’t make it so. In fact, panic attacks are perfectly safe. They put your body under the same amount of stress as a vigorous workout or a moment of intense excitement.
These uncomfortable sensations cannot kill you. This is your survival system - not your faint system, your heart attack system or your ‘self-destruct’ system. These sensations are trying to keep you alive! It would be a huge problem if our survival system landed up killing us.
Indeed if this were possible, this book wouldn’t exist and you wouldn’t be reading it because the human species wouldn’t have survived! During a panic attack your body is safer than ever.
If we could perform an experiment and place someone behind a screen, connect him to devices that read the level of stress hormone in his body in the midst of a panic attack, and ask a doctor on the other side of the screen (who can’t see this person) to read the devices and tell us what’s happening to him, the doctor might respond: “I can’t be entirely sure, but there are three possibilities. This person is either panicking, doing an intense workout, or is really excited about something.” In all three situations, the nervous system reacts almost identically.
No one, to my knowledge, has ever died from a panic attack as the primary cause of death. That’s because your body’s alarm system, known as ‘the sympathetic nervous system,’ was designed to go off. That’s what alarms do!
Worrying during a panic attack that the sensations in your body are dangerous is like worrying that the alarm system in your house will break merely because it’s been activated.
What makes the experience of panic disturbing is that the body’s alarm system is blaring in the absence of any real and present danger. Your nervous system is preparing you to fight, freeze or flee even though you’re perfectly safe.
Panic is a paper tiger. It appears to be and feels like an actual tiger, but it’s a fake, a counterfeit, a life-size rendition made from paper mache that poses no threat.
Panic is the illusion of danger.