Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety and Panic Attacks - January 6 2023

Overcoming anxiety and panic attacks starts with understanding what they are. Anxiety is a normal part of life. It becomes disordered only when we are unable to get off the hamster wheel of worry. Persistent anxiety is marked by repetitive negative thoughts or a general sense that something is going to go wrong. If you think you are struggling with anxiety, you probably are. Persistent anxiety is painful and difficult to overcome, but it can be managed. Managing anxiety can be painful, but it is worth the effort, because although it may not stop you from feeling anxious it will make it bearable.  Before we get into the strategies of managing anxiety, we need to differentiate between persistent anxiety and panic attacks. Persistent anxiety is like a continuous hum in the background, often so loud all we can do is focus on negative recurring thoughts that drive worry and fear. Panic attacks, in contrast, generally come out of nowhere but have devastating effects. Panic attacks are have specific physical and mental effects. The typical physical effects are increased heart rate, chest pain, numbness in the fingers or arms, a change in temperature (feeling hot or cold suddenly), shaking, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, sweating, and/or shivering. Not everyone experiences all of the symptoms, but most people feel at least three of the physical symptoms together during a panic attack. The mental feeling or thought pattern is one of extreme fear and a sense of losing one’s self or mind, or of dying.

Panic attacks come on suddenly and without warning, but are generally connected to a place or event. They are often a result of trauma or negative experiences and are rooted in a fear that the trauma or negative experience will reoccur. Some panic attacks are based in the fear of trauma or of a negative event occurring, even if it never has. A preoccupation or belief that a traumatic or negative experience may occur can trigger panic attacks. Similarly, persistent anxiety is rooted in fear of trauma or a negative event, but this type of anxiety is less sudden and usually not tied to a specific place of event. Persistent anxiety generally lasts longer than a panic attack. Both cause worry, fear, and a sense of dread. Both are driven by fear and exist as an attempt to keep you safe. Both are a product of your mind believing that you are not safe and that you need to be aware of the dangers ahead of you. Usually, the danger that panic attacks and persistent anxiety are trying to protect you from is disproportionate to the actual danger, if any is even present. Understanding why your brain believes you to be in danger and then making a plan to reduce or resolve that danger is key to managing panic and anxiety. Sadly, the process of learning you are safe requires you to spend time with the feeling of being unsafe that drives your panic and anxiety.

Spending time with the thoughts that drive your panic and anxiety is painful, but necessary to manage these feelings. The anxiety and panic "know" that if you look at the thoughts closely, you will be able to deconstruct them and reduce your fear. But the anxious mind wants to be anxious because it believes it is protecting you.  This lie of protection drives the anxious and panicked mind to turn up the pain whenever we attempt to explore these thoughts for the purpose of deconstruction. That’s normal. Staying with the process, even when the mind is working against us, is key to managing our anxiety and panic. Staying in the fight even when anxiety and panic turn up the heat allows us to learn that we are safe, and that we can examine what scares us without harm. Learning that we are safe and can manage these thoughts without harm teaches the brain new responses to the stimuli that cause us panic and anxiety. Deconstructing the triggers allows us to face our biggest fears and make a plan for if they occur.  The “what if” that anxiety and panic put in our minds can be answered and planned for. Even the most difficult situations generally have a way out or means to address them. This work is not easy, and many find it too daunting to do alone. If that’s the case, please stop and find a mental health care professional to guide you through the work. Your safety and recovery is important, and there is no shame in needing help.

Posted on 06 Jan 2023 04:47

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