We Create Our Own Panic

Where does it all start?  What causes a panic attack?

You do.  Your mind and anticipatory obsessing, all those “what-if” thoughts combine to pull you out of the present moment, projecting first into the past and then into the future.  I see it as a three-part process.

1.      Obsessively anticipating

2.      Thoughts create body symptoms

3.      Fear of losing control

For example, a trip I was planning put me in the throws of an anxiety attack. 

When I was by myself, pacing around my apartment, anticipating a trip that would place me in a situation I couldn’t control, I created an adrenaline response in my body.  I was busy telling myself, mostly on a subconscious level, that there was something to be afraid of.  The automatic adrenaline response kicked in and I started having symptoms.  My heart pounded and I felt intense fear.  I couldn’t calm down.  The awful, spacey feeling of confusion was clouding my head.  My mind responded by registering, “Something is wrong!”  Then adrenaline started racing through my body.  I was too anxious to focus on anything.  Cold sweats and feelings of impending doom catapulted me from straightforward anxiety into the next stage of fear: panic.

It began with internal negative dialogue, the type of thinking that’s a sure road to a panic attack.  I had a bad case of the “what-ifs.”  “What if I get on the train and I need to get off?  What if I can’t catch my breath?  What if I embarrass myself?  What if I can’t stop the train?”  I went through my usual litany of fears, creating the second stage of anxiety.  Then came thoughts like, “What’s wrong with me?  Am I going crazy?  Am I going to die?  Am I going to lose control?  Where can I run to get help?”

The cycle progressed, building on itself, until I was so far into it, I had no idea how to get out.  I didn’t even know that getting out was an option.  As I paced the apartment with the walls closing in, my thoughts intensified.  My focus was no longer on the trip.  Now my focus was on my body symptoms and my scary thoughts.  I could see myself being checked into a mental institution, with all the elements of personal control being taken away: straightjackets, heavy medications, inability to communicate.  Under the intensity of these ideas and images, my body released ten times the amount of cortisol and adrenaline.  The somewhat anxious thoughts that had been intermittently breezing through my head had become nonstop.  Increasing in intensity, they became a virtual hurricane, spinning out of control. 


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