What is a panic attack?
About 5% of people have experienced panic attacks.They can be very frightening. Without warning,a person can experience chest pains, sweat, hyperventilate and feel faint. During an attack, they often feel they are having a heart attack and might die.
Stanley Schachter showed that experiencing an emotion often involved a two step process. First, an event or thought causes your body to jump into action when/if it perceives a threat. Second, you look around to figure out what caused that sense of threat and made your body react that way. Is the threat real? For instance, if you hear a gunshot out of nowhere you would feel scared and stressed whereas if you were on a shooting range you would put that sound in context and not perceive the noise as a threat.
The body sometimes send us false alarms that we interpret as danger. In the 1990’s, a psychologist David Clark believed that panic was due to a person misintepreting the body’s adrenalin symptoms as something far worse. Clark looked at patients who were having panic attacks and asked them to look at their symptoms in a new way. Instead of assuming they were dying from a heart attack or were about to faint, Clark asked them to see the sensations as evidence of their bodies simply feeling slightly anxious.
Clark eased the fears of those who thought they might faint (even though this had never happened) by explaining that this feeling was due to the blood travelling away from the brain to the major muscles. The resulting increase in blood pressure meant they were actually less likelt to faint. Clark’s procedure proved remarkably effective, with research showing that getting people to reinterpret their symptoms of panic was more effective than drugs or types of relaxation.
The same approach has been used to treat phobias, those who are overly anxious about taking exams, going for job interviews etc.
Strategy for panic attacks
Learn to interpret your bodily sensations as your body feeling anxious and preparing for any possible threat by releasing adrenalin. It’s natures way of preparing you and doesn’t necessarily mean you are about to have a heart attack or faint.