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If someone told you they had experienced an ‘attack’, you would probably conjure up an image of a mugger, or perhaps an unsocialised dog, a street brawl or even a hungry seagull diving to grab your lunch out of your hand. What probably wouldn’t spring to mind is the idea of a series of unhelpful thoughts and their accompanying physiological symptoms.
That is until you put the word ‘panic’ before it. The big problem with labelling feelings of panic as ‘panic attacks’ is that this choice of language is incredibly disempowering for the person experiencing the panic (whether this is yourself or someone you know who hears you use the term, or sees it written down). When a person is creating huge amounts of anxiety about something, they feel out of control and helpless – but in actual fact they are not.
The physiological symptoms of panicking can be very easily associated with many different physical health conditions and it is therefore understandable that in cases of extreme panic the person feels that there is something very wrong with them, over which they have no control. Consider the range of symptoms that a person can experience by creating panic:
- rapid heartbeat
- shortness of breath
- choking feeling
- dizziness or weakness
- tingling or numbness
- ringing in ears
- stomach or chest pain
This is not an exhaustive list and it is not difficult to think of a number of physical health conditions that involve these symptoms. But there is a raft of scientific evidence showing the interaction between mental processes and physical health; the study of this link is called psychoneuroimmunology. This nine-syllable mouthful tells us that people can think themselves into experiencing physical symptoms, despite the fact that they desperately do not want them.
A factor here is anticipatory anxiety; this is the anxious thoughts we create prior to something happening (possibly because it has happened before), or about something which may never happen. This is different from real-time anxiety, which is anxiety that arises in the moment. Panic ‘attacks’ may feel like they are purely the latter (real-time anxiety) because they may feel as though they simply occur out of the blue, but in reality there is likely to be a significant amount of anticipatory anxiety that has contributed to bringing them about.
The myths about panic
- Panic can creep up on a person and they are its passive victim
- Once it takes hold, the attack is inevitable
- Because the person is powerless, it could happen again at any time in the future
The truth about panic
- The person begins to create a string of anxious thoughts that escalate
- At any stage the person can actively cut this particular string and amend their thinking
- By doing this they have then proven to themselves that they have ownership of their mind
What else do we need to know
Because of the evidence the person provides for themselves in number 3, they now know that they have this powerful internal resource which they can draw on at any time in the future, so there is no need to dread it. In fact, when very skilful self-management is learned and practised, that initial anxious thought that begins the butterfly effect will not even occur.
Many people are very unaware of their thinking and do not realise consciously that they have actually had a series of limiting, anxious thoughts prior to the onset of panic symptoms. The earlier the person can detect this and turn it around, the easier it will be to come out of panic mode or, even better, not to enter it in the first place.
Because the phrase ‘panic a*****’ is actually inappropriate and misleading, I challenge you to eliminate it from your vocabulary. Replace it with ‘uncomfortable feelings of anxiety that have been created by the mind and can therefore be overcome’ (which rolls off the tongue like a treat, doesn’t it?). Language is incredibly powerful; both the language we use out loud and the language we use in our heads, or ‘self-talk’.
Start to become aware of your language choices, keeping the helpful ones going and changing any unhelpful ones. Negative words and feelings of panic are both associated with low self-esteem. Substitute powerless language with powerful, encouraging language and begin to see self-esteem increase.
If you are struggling with panic and finding that you are not able to overcome it on your own yet, then it’s important to seek help so that you can learn the psychological skills and resources to do so – to get on with living and enjoying your life – because when you learn to manage your thinking well, panic can and will be overcome.
Laura Donaghy-Spargo is a licensed Thrive Programme Consultant who works with clients from her office in the North East of England.
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