How to Stop Panic Attacks (Part 2/3): The Panic Attack Cycle

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In this post you’re going to learn how to stop having panic attacks. You’ll learn what you’re doing that makes them come back. You’ll learn the difference between a trigger and the real cause of panic attacks, and then you’ll learn three steps to stop panic attacks from coming back. 

But first, let me tell you about Steve. Steve learned to stop having panic attacks, but it was kind of an unexpected journey.

So I once had this client who had panic attacks all the time. We’ll call him Steve. Steve lived out in the country. He was a good, solid blue-collar worker. He was really good at a lot of essential skills. He was good at welding and roofing and auto repair and gardening and building and fixing things with his hands, and he was just always working on projects around his house. 

But he really struggled with panic attacks. He would, as he put it, break down at church. He would start to feel a little anxious, and then he’d get all freaked out, and then he would start to sweat and shake. And then he would be terrified that the other churchgoers would notice. 

He’d start to get so embarrassed and anxious, and his heart would pound and his face would clench up and his whole body would get drenched in sweat, and then he would practically run for the door. 

And it didn’t just happen at church. It would happen at the store, at the doctor’s office, and even in therapy sessions with me. He would start to explore some feelings, and then he’d start to feel really anxious, and then he’d clench right up. He’d say “Oh no, not again.” And then he’d break down, as he put it, and he’d shake and he’d cry and he’d feel sick. 

Steve was locked in a cycle with panic attacks.

How Steve Got Stuck in the Panic Attack Cycle

Now, panic attacks suck. I’ve had a couple in my life, and they’re scary, and they make you feel sick. They get in the way of your life and your work and your friends. 

But there is a straightforward process to stop recurring panic attacks. As Nick Wignall says, once you understand what panic really is and how it works, it’s possible to completely free yourself from it. So let’s talk about what leads to panic attacks so we can understand how to stop them. 

Okay, so back to Steve. How did he get here? 

Steve grew up with an abusive father and an enabling mother. His parents fought all the time but especially when dad was drunk. Little Steve grew up in fear. 

When he was around five, he heard his parents fighting, and things were getting rough. Things were getting thrown, and he could hear screaming and smashing and breaking. He hid under his bed crying and just wondering if his mother would be killed. 

Another time he was playing outside barefoot and stepped on a nail, and it went all the way through his foot. He screamed for help, and he hobbled inside, and his dad yelled at him, “Shut up. Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” 

Needless to say, he grew up in a home where fear was abundant, and it was also unacceptable to have emotions. If you were sad you’d be called a wuss. If you were scared you’d be called a little girl, which is the worst kind of insult for a tough little boy. In his home he would be punished for basically feeling any kind of emotion. 

So Steve learned to be tough to hide what he was feeling, to cover it up with anger, to avoid people and just get over it. And that worked for him. Kinda. He held down jobs, mostly. Well, sometimes. He went through a couple of divorces, and he worked hard, and he did all right. He was a good man who tried to serve in his church and help his neighbors and work hard. 

But later in life a few things changed. He met and married a sweet woman who was empathetic and understanding. Then he went through some serious medical issues that left him very sick for a few years. Finally, his health returned, but something about him was more tender. 

The difficult experiences he had gone through had deepened his emotional sensitivity, and perhaps some medical changes also impacted him. He could no longer keep his emotions buried inside. And the more he felt, the more scared he got. 

You see, Steve had learned as a child that emotions were dangerous; they meant you were weak or that you’d be shamed or punished for having them. And so emotions were scary. 

It was scary to care for his sweet wife because he had lost other relationships in the past. It was scary to feel anxiety because he’d been punished for that in the past. It was scary to feel happy because that might lead to disappointment. 

What Causes Panic Attacks

And so that’s how he ended up where he was having panic attacks over and over. Because, you see, panic is all about feeling in danger when you’re actually safe. A panic attack is anxiety about anxiety. It’s being afraid of feeling anxiety. It’s a loop that feeds itself. 

So a panic attack is often triggered by a physical sensation, something like your heart pounding or your stomach feeling queasy, and this may have been triggered by a performance review at work or something that reminds you of your past. A trigger is any event or sensation or feeling that takes your anxiety up a bit. It’s anything that you or your body interpret as dangerous. 

Now, that may be the trigger, but it’s not the cause. The cause is what happens next. The cause is worrying about the anxiety. It’s your relationship with anxiety, which you are in control of. 

So when you judge that sensation as bad — and this is something you’re probably not aware of; you probably don’t notice yourself doing it — but you worry that that feeling in your stomach or that sense of anxiety means that something is wrong. 

You might think, “I can’t feel anxious” or “It’s awful to feel my heart beat so hard.” Maybe you catastrophize “Oh my goodness, what if I have a panic attack? That would be terrible.” Or you think, “Oh no, my anxiety is coming back at the worst time.” Or “What if I’m having a heart attack?” 

So that level right there where you judge and label your anxiety as being bad, dangerous, unacceptable, that is the cause of panic attacks. 

Then you try to make these feelings go away. As part of this process of judging your feelings, you’re required to try and force them down. And this accidentally tells your brain that anxiety or that sensation is dangerous. 

The harder you try to calm down or make your anxiety go away, the more you worry about your physical sensations. And the more you worry about your physical sensations, the worse they get. 

Because what’s happening is in your brain the amygdala sends a danger signal, which then turns up the fight/flight/freeze response. 

And the fight/flight/freeze response triggers more adrenaline and cortisol, which makes you feel more physical symptoms of anxiety, which your brain has interpreted or you interpret as dangerous, which then heightens that fight/flight/freeze response, and on and on until your brain and body are in full-on panic mode. And then this usually continues until you’re exhausted. 

And then because that experience was so awful, this verifies to your brain, “See, anxiety was actually dangerous.” So in the future your brain is constantly scanning your body for signs of anxiety, and then it overreacts to any of those signs with more panic attacks because you’ve accidentally told your brain that anxiety is dangerous. 

And it’s easy to see how this leads to worse panic attacks. Believing that a panic attack is dangerous makes you more likely to worry about having a panic attack, and worrying about panic attacks makes you feel more general anxiety. It’s impossible to try to have a panic attack, because if we try to have one we show our brains that it’s not dangerous, and that immediately stops the cycle. 

What You Do That Gets You Stuck

Okay, so here’s what you do that gets you stuck in that cycle: you try to force fear to go away. You try to clench down on anxiety. But that’s the one thing that feeds it. Trying to force it, avoid it, and control it — that sends that message to your brain that it’s actually quite dangerous. 

Now, anxiety is a form of fear, and what feeds fear? Running from it. Trying to fight fear with fear. That just accelerates the fear; it just fuels it. 

Now, this isn’t usually something that you’re aware of; it’s habitual. It happens very quickly, often without your awareness. Even if you didn’t grow up in an abusive home, our society sends the message that anxiety is dangerous, that it’s something to be feared. It’s not a normal emotion that you can have a healthy relationship with. 

And so much of the advice out there says, “Just calm yourself down. You have to take deep breaths. You have to slow your heart down. This is how you fix a panic attack.” But trying to force yourself to calm down is one of the things that triggers panic attacks. 

So if you have chronic panic attacks, it’s because you’ve developed a reflex of getting anxious about your own anxiety, especially the bodily sensations of anxiety, and this leads your brain to constantly checking for any signs of anxiety and then responding with a huge stress chemical dump when it finds any anxiety symptoms. And this is the panic attack cycle. 

The good news is it can be reversed. In the next post, we’re going to talk about how to change your approach to anxiety, how to change your relationship to anxiety and panic, and how to stop that cycle. It’s a little bit paradoxical, but it works. So stay tuned for that. 

Thanks for reading, and take care.

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