What. Is. Happening. To. Me. In. A. Panic. Attack.
I want to explain to you exactly what is happening to you when you're having anxiety or maybe even a panic attack.
Knowledge is power.
Here's whats happening in your brain.
The temporal lobe is the front part of your brain responsible for making decisions and has the ability to check with your surroundings. The temporal lobe takes in sensory information from your environment and also has stored past memories of similar situations. Your amygdala, located inside the temporal lobe, is responsible to regulate your emotions. When its senses danger, it rings the "panic" button sending you to "fight-or-flight" mode.
If you were speeding on the highway and a car was headed towards you, your amygdala would go off at high alarm and your temporal lobe would send your body the message to quickly swirve lanes to save your life. This is necessary to function as these messages keep you safe, activating you to move (fight-or-flight), to get to safety as quick as possible.
Anxiety is when our amygdala's alarm system alert us when we're NOT in physical danger, but we have an emotional trigger that sends the same body message of "danger".
Sometimes you may be aware of what the trigger is and at other times the trigger may not be something you are consciously aware of, and may leave you confused.
When your body goes into "fight-or-flight" you release adrenaline. Adrenaline causes your heart rate to increase, breathing rate quickens and you and to start perspire so you can move quicker. As you don't usually push yourself this way, your body might have a reaction including lightheadedness, low blood sugar and you may notice you're shaking as well. This change to your body can contribute to more stress and extend the length of the attack, because it's confused and feels overtaken.
The underlying culprit is a disruption in the GABA neurotransmitter system which is involved in a lot of human emotions and reactions. GABA is a name for the neurotransmitter in your brain that carries one message from one neuron cell to another one, telling the brain to do a certain thing.
Is your GABA system be more susceptible?
- Your system may have faced stressors or adversity that may make your system more sensitive to changes in the brain.
- You may have been born with a certain temperament that is predisposed to this.
A panic attack feels like glitch in the "fight or flight response" as the brain is unable to process the stress being placed on it and instead the body is dumping its supply of adrenaline on you.
There are in-the-moment interventions to survive, as well as prevention- to reduce the incidents of these experiences.
When you're experiencing a panic attack, don't try to make it go away. The best thing you can do when you'e in one is to remind yourself that you're not crazy, you're not dying, and it will pass. Fighting the attack usually prolongs it and makes it stronger.
- Breath into a brown paper bag , it helps slow down breathing, in and out, so that oxygen is sent to the brain. When you're very anxious your brain is depleted of oxygen as breathing gets very shallow. Your brain needs oxygen to remind it that you're ok and then it can calm down.
- Splash cold water on your face or put an ice pack on your forehead or cheekbones. (wrap in a thin towel so its comfortable to touch). This scientifically helps as the cold pressure bring you back to the here-and-now and out of the haze of the anxiety fuzzy zone.
- Slowly trace your fingers on the lines of the inside of your palm and talk out loud as you do "oh wow, this is a long line. Look where this one crosses over with the other one. This is so cool".
- Repeat a mantra that is soothing to you. "I am ok" "This will pass" "My brain knows how to care for me" "I am safe"
- Sit on the floor and let yourself feel held by gravity beneath you.
- Distract yourself. Notice the color of the wall, a fluffy pillow, the shape of the lightbulb.
- Talk to someone who is next to you about your favorite piece of clothing or your favorite activity, color or food.
- Find the 4 corners of the room. Remind your body and mind of your surroundings.
The above suggestions are just a few of the in-the-moment interventions I suggest, however, if this has happened more than once you may benefits from going to counseling (medication may be helpful, if needed) to help learn how to regulate your system and learn new ways of calming your system overall so that it is less susceptible to these attacks happening to you.
The more often your brain gets the "alert message" and sends you into panic mode, the neural circuit connected to the panic gets stronger and makes you more susceptible to future panic attacks.
We want to work on strengthening your brain's neural networks, learning how to track real danger from perceived danger.
Part of that may be exploring safety, danger signs and current stressors in your life. You may also learn mindfulness skills that will strengthen your brain over time, so that you brain gets to practice being calmer and more mindful over time.
Hold onto this knowledge when you bump into anxious moments.