Panic & Anxiety (part 3)

stylised drawing of anxious child

Many people who suffer from panic disorders may be reminded of their physical symptoms of panic by other physical sensations which occur, in their day to day lives. Unfortunately, these natural sensations may increase their anxiety and panic and, if prolonged, can trigger panic attacks. For example, an acrimonious confrontation with a family member may cause you to start to breath shallowly, have a dry throat and sweaty hands.

These are all normal physical reactions to an unpleasant situation but they are also common signs of a panic attack. To a person who suffers from extreme anxiety, these normal symptoms may be perceived as the beginning of a panic attack, and thus lead into one.

It may happen, that panic attack sufferers will start to avoid certain activities because of these or similar symptoms. Strenuous activity and exercise, if avoided, will also lead to poor physical health and increased vulnerability to stress, thus increasing the real chances of panic attacks! Confrontations, arguments or simply being assertive, could also be avoided. These could lead to other personal problems whereby the sufferer becomes passive to the point of being ‘walked over’.

To break this chain of events, it is helpful to recognize the activities or situations that you may be avoiding so as not to become aroused. Once you have done this, you can learn how to overcome fears about normal physical sensations that ‘feel’ like panic attacks. There are two useful methods to do this.

  1. Desensitisation:

This allows you to experience normal physical sensations of arousal while controlling your level of anxiety. Firstly, what are your most feared physical sensations? Find a way to reproduce these in a way that reminds you of a panic attack. Here, are some examples:

Physical symptom How to produce this symptom
Rapid heart beat jogging, walking up & down stairs
Sweating walking briskly in hot weather, a hot bath
Trembling make a fist, squeeze hard for a minute then release
Shortness of breath exercise as above
Dizziness Spin around slowly with eyes open

After producing these physical symptoms, use the slow breathing techniques previously described, to control anxiety levels. Use a gradual step by step approach to get used to experiencing the symptoms and then consciously controlling them.

  1. Challenging catastrophic thoughts:

In previous articles, we examined ways to change negative thoughts associated with anxiety provoking situations. Now the same principles need to be applied to overcome your fear of physical sensations. For example, if the physical sensation is sweating and the catastrophic thought that comes up is ” I am having a heart attack”, the challenging thought will be a dash of reality, ” it is a hot day, I am just over dressed for the weather.” The positive thought would then be ” this is not a panic attack, I can cope and will cool down.” Substituting rational, positive thoughts in place of catastrophic ones, is the aim.

By practising these techniques regularly, the negative thoughts about normal body sensations will be replaced by a recognition that these are not going to lead to a panic attack and can be experienced without fear. As always, practice of the techniques is essential to become effective.

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Read the article by Hayley Gleeson of the ABC “How to stay married through Coronavirus“.

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