Coping with Anxiety v: the meaning and management of panic attacks. (Cont’d)

In recent times we have come to learn a very great deal about the “emotional brain”, as it has been aptly termed. The truth is that we can no longer separate feeling or emotion from thought (or cognition) as we once attempted so to do, any more than we can isolate feeling and thought from physical and bodily awareness and experiences. If you can begin to imagine some – indeed, many – of the brain’s and body’s chemical as well as behavioral contributors to emotion, overacting or going into a kind of spasm, from which conflicting, distorted and even contradictory signals are being sent out and experienced by their increasingly terrified recipient, one will at least draw near to a better understanding of what instigates and generates a “full-blown” panic attack.

It is clear therefore that in reality, panic attacks amount to an emotional overreaction, due to grossly exaggerated and conflicting signals being received from the body. This is precisely why drugs known as beta-blockers (which block epinephrine receptors in the muscles from producing muscular tension, as well as the uptake of our alerting hormone, i.e. adrenaline) can be hugely effective. It is also why almost entirely physical acts performed in gentle exercise and relaxation, combined with deep breathing, (as in yoga) and which stimulate the parasympathetic division’s• response of the ANS, are also effective in warding off the severest effects of such panic reactions.

One other important question concerning panic attacks is as follows. Why are some people more prone to them than others? Admittedly, this can in reality be a function of personality and temperament. Some people are constitutionally as, it were, more conditionable, i.e. prone to the process of conditioning than are others. However, panic to this extent is likely to be a function (outcome) of learning and other environmental influences.

For example, most adolescent girls cope satisfactorily – given appropriate information/support from family and/or friends with early alarms at the onset of puberty. However, some – who by temperament do not react too well to new situations – may develop panic symptoms such as palpitations, breathing problems, choking feelings, trembling, along with feelings of inadequacy and inability to cope. Where the two, i.e. the feelings and the symptoms, become contiguously (in the same time and place) bonded (paired) with fear (itself a powerful catalyst) there – and without skilled help – chronic panic reactions may well develop and be found to accompany monthly menstruation.

Moreover, let us imagine for a moment that some other stressful event, e.g. the first day at work or even a first date coincides with this reaction to the monthly cycle. In such circumstances, it would not be surprising to find that new situations – even where pleasant (as possibly in the case of the woman referred to above on her wedding day) – may be tinged with or even overtaken entirely by such adverse reactions. So much then for panic attacks.

In my next blog I shall endeavour to describe and further explain the accepted “rationale” underpinning phobias.

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