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Breathing Principle Series - Control Anxiety Attacks by Controlling Your Thoughts and Emotions
But where do these anxiety and panic attack hormones come from in the first place?
The answer relates back to what we’ve learned about neurotransmitters and hormones in previous chapters. As we know, these are released from vesicles (little sacks) at the terminal points of our neurons. When our brain 'does something' an action potential fires causing electricity to nip along our neurons. This in turn releases several chemicals that tell us how we should feel about that thing, whether it's important or not we should cement the experience as a permanent memory.
In other words, then, it is the formation and connection of specific neurons, releasing specific neurotransmitters which lead to anxiety and panic at-tacks, and this web of interconnected neurons is formed by our experiences and our thought processes – resulting in what is known as a 'connectome'.
The key point to bear in mind here is that it's all going on 'in your head'. It's all to do with the way that your brain has encoded information and it's all to do with the way that you perceive what is happening. In other words, if you see a lion but you think it's a cat, then you will produce oxytocin instead of adrenaline (and you will die). Likewise, if you see a deadline and think you can make it just fine, then you will produce serotonin instead of cortisol. It’s not actually the danger itself that is causing you to have the panic attack, it’s your perception of danger.
And for some of us, our perception is completely skewed and not a fair re- flection of the reality. Therefore, some people end up with phobias and anxiety disorders. And in the case of panic attacks, this is very often related to agoraphobia or other phobias. You feel corners, you feel exposed, you feel jostled… and this causes you to over-react to the situation. Throw in your response to the experience of the panic attack itself and you can end up working yourself up to the point of passing out. That is a panic attack in a nutshell!
The good news is that you rewire your brain by changing the way you think about things and this in turn means you have more neuronal patterns that release positive hormones than negative ones. And that's how you improve your anxiety and panic attacks.
The problem is that when you have a brain that's already swimming with stress hormones, this makes it very difficult for you to think positive
about things and to form those more positive beliefs that will help to combat stress. Thus, you need to use mental discipline in order to help yourself overcome that stress.
The AWARE Technique for Panic Attacks
Mental discipline means reminding yourself constantly that what you're experiencing is not as bad as you think it is. Or that at least, believing it's bad will only make matters worse.
An example of how this works is the 'AWARE' technique that is often used for treating anxiety and panic attacks. This goes as follows:
A: Accept the anxiety and don't try to fight it.W: Watch the anxiety as though you were an observer. Try to act normal.
R: Repeat the other steps.E: Expect the best. 'Feel' it start to work.
This is essentially a top-down approach that helps you to distance yourself from the anxiety by intellectualizing it. Simply by acting normal and going about your usual business, you can essentially teach yourself that a panic attack isn’t a big deal. And the sooner you do this, the sooner you can start to relax and put yourself more at ease.
Another strategy is one taught in cognitive behavioral therapy which involves looking at the things you're afraid of that caused the anxiety and panic attacks and then assessing whether they're logical fears. Can you really get a heart attack from a panic attack? (No). Will people really laugh at you if you faint? (No).
Again, this forces you to think logically about what's happening and thus to change the way you respond to stressors. Similarly, you can think about the things that caused the anxiety in the first place differently. Are you really like to be fired if you're late for work? (No). Is there really any reason to get stressed when you can't do anything about it anyway? (No).
We’ll talk a lot more about CBT in the next blog posting.
Practice, be disciplined and over time you’ll find that your panic attacks become less frequent and less severe.
Another type of therapy that is focused around overcoming fear of panic attacks is exposure therapy. This is a type of therapy often used in the treatment of phobias and involves exposing the individual to the thing they are afraid of in controlled conditions so that they learn there's no reason to be afraid of them.
Exposure therapy can also be useful for treating panic attacks. Here, it is employed by the patient allowing themselves to experience the symptoms of a panic attack once again in a controlled setting. This way, you can be- come familiar with the way they feel, and you can learn to differentiate them from heart attacks or other conditions. What's more, you will gradually learn that panic attacks in themselves are not dangerous and while they might be uncomfortable, they don't generally lead to any negative consequences. If you can sit down quietly somewhere, they pass and really there's nothing to be afraid of.
Note that exposure therapy here can also be used to combat phobias, which may be particularly helpful if phobias are what are causing the anxiety attacks. For instance, if you have a phobia of crowds and this is causing panic attacks; slowly exposing yourself to bigger and bigger crowds under controlled conditions is a very good strategy for coping.