What is a panic attack?
Posted by Dr. Debra Kissen of Light on Anxiety on Dec 7, 2012
A panic attack is an alarm, a very loud and powerful alarm, going off in your brain. It sends you the signal, "You are in immediate danger. You must do something right now to either fight,flight or freeze. If you were camping in the woods and awoke to a bear hovering above you, this primitive, and oh so attention grabbing, fight or flight response would be quite welcome. Or if a loved one was trapped under a large vehicle and you required super human strength to lift the vehicle, once again, this powerful fight or flight response would be desirable.
In these situations, there is truly an emergency. The rush of adrenalin pulsing through your body will help you escape from an angry bear, or save a loved one.
But when the same rush happens as you are driving home from work, on your usual route, in no immediate danger, there is a false alarm going off in your brain.
In both situations you are experiencing identical physiological changes. Your body is mustering all resources to deal with what your brain has decided is an imminent threat. When facing a true threat, such as an angry bear charging towards you, you would not be thinking "Why am I having a hard time breathing?” Or “Why is my heart beating so fast?" or “Everyone can tell that I am freaking out”. You would instead be using all of your energy to escape from the immediate danger.
Given that there is no bear charging at you when a panic attack occurs, all that you are left with are the uncomfortable physical sensations of your body operating in “fight or flight” mode. Your mind attempts to make sense of all of the uncomfortable sensations it is experiencing. You may have catastrophic thoughts such as “I am having a heart attack” or “This must be a brain tumor” or “I feel like I am losing it”. The goal of CBT for panic is to retrain your brain to learn that a panic attack is uncomfortable but not dangerous. Once your brain learns this, you will be able to break the vicious cycle of fearing fear which leads to more fear.
A panic attack is uncomfortable, but not dangerous.