Panic attacks (part 3)

August, 2014

What keeps panic attacks going?

Panic affects your body, your thoughts and your behaviour and these three things work together to keep panic going.

The physical symptoms of high anxiety can be part of the problem.  For example, for people whose breathing is affected by anxiety, something called hyperventilation can occur.  This just means someone is taking in too much air and not breathing it out.  This is not dangerous but can lead to feelings of dizziness, and is often taken as further evidence that there is something seriously wrong.  The physical symptoms and anxious thoughts form a vicious circle that keeps panic attacks coming back again and again.  Then if you start worrying about what is happening in your body, you will start to believe that even the very small changes are a potential threat.  People who have panic attacks often worry that the physical symptoms mean something different from what they really do.

Your breathing may have changed as your body tries to take in more oxygen to fight or run away, but you worry you may be choking or running out of air. Your heart may start pounding and even cause some chest pains and you believe you are having a heart attack, when actually the heart is only preparing you for fight or flight.  That pounding in your head,  that may lead to a headache is not the brain haemorrhage you suspect, but merely the result of your raised heart rate caused by raised anxiety.

People often find it hard to believe that our thoughts can produce such strong feelings as fear.  But if we believe something 100% then we will feel exactly the same way as if it were true.

Another way thoughts can affect panic, is when someone worries they may panic in situations where they have panicked before.  This, unfortunately, makes it more likely to happen again, and often leads to avoidance (which just reinforces the belief).  How you behave before, during and after a panic attack has a big part to play in whether panic attacks keep happening.  The avoidance, escape, and safety behaviours all create a vicious circle of panic.


• Fear is our body’s way of coping with threat – preparing us to fight, run or freeze.

• Panic attacks can begin for a number of reasons:
– stress  – health worries  – during a mild illness  – because of difficult emotions  – out of the blue

• Panic attacks are kept going because of the vicious circle of physical symptoms + thoughts +  behaviour

• By avoiding, escaping or preventing panic attacks, you may:

* never find out that nothing terrible was going to happen

* dread going back into the situation, because you fear another attack

* lose confidence in your ability to cope alone