An example of a self-maintained problem

by Dr Bob Rich

Have you ever suffered from a panic attack?
Here are some facts that might help:

    Your life is not in danger. During a panic attack, the sufferer is often convinced that s/he is having a heart attack or a stroke, and is dying. THIS IS NOT SO. The symptoms of heart attacks and strokes are quite different from those of extreme fear.

  A panic attack is maintained by fear. Are you brave enough to try the technique of 'paradoxical intention'? All you have to do is to WILL the panic attack to hit you. Invite it. Dare it. This is particularly effective for people whose panic is predictable: occurs in particular circumstances. Go into the feared situation and say within your head: "Come on, you wretched panic: hit me! Go on! I'm not afraid of you!" If it helps, have a trusted friend with you for support.
    The panic will be helpless against you, will not be able to touch you, AS LONG AS YOU REFUSE TO BE AFRAID OF IT!

  A panic attack is not a sign that you are going crazy. It is true that you are in the grip of something and therefore 'out of control' of yourself, but the symptoms and feelings are very different from those of any mental illness. They are exactly the same as those of a person in extreme physical danger. They occur in response to A SIGNAL YOU ARE MISINTERPRETING, THEN THE FEAR IS MAINTAINED BY WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS IN RESPONSE TO IT. The fear is real. It is not an illusion or a hallucination. You are not crazy.

  A panic attack is not a sign of weakness. Anyone can have them, in the right (well, wrong) circumstances. I once had one while watching my daughter stand on the bottom rail of a wrought iron safety fence, at the top of a very tall tower. I had the unreasonable feeling that, regardless of the laws of physics, she could topple over the fence (which was above her chest height) and fall to her death. I knew this was unrealistic, but could not stop an extreme fear reaction. Fortunately, I knew enough to bring myself out of it, and it has never recurred. Had I been less knowledgeable about psychology, I might now have a full-blown phobia.

  You can control it. Just knowing the above facts can help a person get rid of panic attacks, EVEN IF THEY HAVE BEEN A PROBLEM FOR MANY YEARS. When you feel the next panic attack coming on, say to yourself: "This will be uncomfortable, but it cannot kill me. It's not a sign that I'm going crazy. If I can stop being scared, it will never come back. Anyone can have a panic attack."

   Feelings of terror or impending doom, including full-blown panic attacks may be side-effects of drugs such as marijuana, amphetamines, caffeine taken to excess, or for certain people, even certain food additives.

A bit of science

   When you are facing a real physical danger, you need LOTS of oxygen in your muscles. Then action comes, and you use it up, generating carbon dioxide in the process. So, an automatic part of extreme fear is to breathe in a way that pumps the oxygen in, fast. This is "chest breathing:" very rapid little pants done with the top of the rib cage. This has the side-effect of drastically lowering the carbon dioxide level in the blood.

   Many of the symptoms of a panic attack are actually those of low carbon dioxide level. So, often the way to end a panic attack is to get carbon dioxide back into your blood.

    Here is a very slightly modified extract from my book, 'Anger and Anxiety: How to be in charge of your emotions and control phobias.'

    Often, the underlying cause of the panic attack is some past trauma. You can do something about that, as I describe in detail in From Depression to Contentment: A self-therapy guide.