The first one is always such a shock isn’t it! I can remember when I was a lot younger, having just gone through a divorce. I felt OK, I was working, I had a good social life and although the divorce had been messy, it was finally over. One day I was just sitting at my desk looking at a file of papers (I worked in law then), and suddenly I felt shaky, panicky, hot, terrified of an intangible danger, and had an absolutely overwhelming need to run away, but I couldn’t, because I was rooted to the spot with fear. My first thought was “what’s happening to me? Am I going to die? What if someone sees me like this? I need to get out of here, but I can’t move”.
That first panic attack was one of many over the following year. I didn’t understand why it was happening, I actually thought I was going mad and that no-one would understand. I even asked my doctor if I could see a psychiatrist!
Eventually, after a year of debilitating panic attacks (or episodes as I now call them), things calmed down, I met someone new, and felt settled again.
So why did it happen?
When we go through any upsetting or traumatic time or event in our lives, our natural instinct is to survive, and to “hold it together ” at the time. It’s as if we are on auto pilot. It’s a bit like the swan analogy – on the surface we may seem calm and coping with the situation, but inside the effect on our psyche can be a time bomb, waiting to go off when least expected. What can happen then is that whatever environment we were in at the time of the event, or during the very stressful period of time (such as when going through a divorce) sets down a template in our preconscious thought processes. The anxiety and tension builds to such a level that if we happen to be a similar environment when it’s all over, and something very small adds a bit more to the already stored anxiety ( in my case it was a work deadline concerning the file I was looking at), then the anxiety can trigger a full blown panic episode, because our mind has triggered the fight or flight response in our body – hence the feelings of feeling sweaty, nauseous, shaky, terrified, racing heart, shallow breathing and an urgent sense of the need to get out.
In reality, there is no danger, but the mind has made the link to the original template for whatever reason, and because the brain doesn’t recognise time, we respond as if we were back there in the original situation. As far as the brain is concerned, it’s happening right now. We are then on high alert, watching for signs that it’s about to happen again.
Panic episodes can be overcome with help from an experienced therapist, but there’s a lot you can do yourself. If you start to feel panicky, say out loud “I feel a bit anxious right now, but it’s just my mind playing its old tricks again. Whatever happens, I’ll be OK, so I choose to go with it. Focus on your breathing, and breathe in to the count of 4, and out to the count of 6 until you feel calm again.
A panic episode cannot last more than 10-15 minutes because the adrenal glands which are pumping out adrenaline become depleted, and everything goes back to normal.
Lynda Roberts is a highly experienced Hypnotherapist and Hypnotherapy Trainer, working from a busy practice in Colchester, Essex. Skype sessions are offered to clients outside of the area. www.hypnotherapysoutheast.co.uk