Part 2: Why do we have panic attacks?

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So why is it that so many of us experience feelings of panic in a comparably safe modern environment? The answer is to be found in our history.

Panic Attacks and their Place in the Modern World

Human evolution has taken approximately 135 million years. Modern life can only be said to have existed for the last ten thousand years or so - less than one thousandth of one percent (.001%) of our evolution. This is not nearly long enough for us to adapt. So, in a very real sense, we are stuck in a modern world using ancient tools.

The ‘Trip-wire’ of Panic

Now this is all very well, but it doesn’t explain why one person has a panic attack while another doesn’t or why we can suddenly just start to have them. For the answer to this question, we must look at the stress levels in our lives. Remember that stress is caused by the way we react to a situation. When a person is generally stressed, or anxious, the sensitive ‘trip-wire’ which is the fight or flight response is more easily triggered.

The Unconscious Mind is a Quick Learner

Once a panic attack has happened in a situation, the mind can quickly learn to fear the situation itself. The panic response can be ‘conditioned’ to be triggered by the situation or environment. So, too much ongoing day-to-day stress can prime this ‘trip-wire’ causing it to go off like a faulty car alarm every time someone walks past it.

[This is the same mechanism that causes you to remember old memories when you hear a song, or smell a particular odour.]

We can slacken our ‘trip-wire’ by making sure that we take enough time to relax every day. We’ve established that a panic attack is a response we all need sometimes. You can see your panic response as a guard whose job it is to protect you from harm. It needs to be there but it also needs to learn to distinguish between threatening and non-threatening situations, between friend and foe.

Deconditioning Panic

Sometimes, once a person’s unconscious mind has learnt to ‘attach’ panic or anxiety to a certain situation, ‘desensitisation’, or ‘deconditioning’ needs to take place. Essentially, this means returning the situation or memory to its original state, as non-emotional. This was traditionally done through ‘systematic desensitisation’ where a person is slowly re-introduced to the problem area.

These days, it is possible to decondition memories, or panic situations, using a guided visualisation technique known as the Fast Phobia Cure, or V/K dissociation. Although this is best carried out by a trained practitioner, we have included a version of it on the audio program. This is enough to decondition some panic situations, although if yours is very serious, it may be better for you to see someone in your area who can use this technique.

Agoraphobia and Panic Attacks

Some people, after having a panic attack, develop a fear of open spaces. This is known as agoraphobia and may appear as fear of being in crowds or busy places or just being outside the home. If we look at this from an evolutionary perspective it makes sense. Thousands of years ago we would have had to be careful of wide open spaces because of the possibility of being attacked by wild animals.

Agoraphobia can also develop as panic attacks ‘spread’ from one situation to another. As we saw above, panic attacks work via the unconscious mind. The unconscious ‘sees’ a pattern that was previously associated with panic, and assumes that it is appropriate to panic again.

Because this ‘pattern match’ has to be approximate, mistakes can be made. So, for example, a lady we once treated had her first attack on a crowded underground train when it got stuck in a tunnel. Her mother had just died and she was already highly stressed.

At a party the following week she had another attack. She was sitting on a sofa, surrounded by people; her unconscious mind decided that this was ‘the same’ as the underground (where she had been sitting surrounding by people) and triggered a second occurence. It’s not too hard to see how this could continue to spread to other public transport and more public situations.

Calming Things Down

Once your panic attacks stop then your mind and body will get the message that the former panic situations are no longer real threats.

Mark Tyrrell
Creative Director Uncommon Knowledge

Mark Tyrrell is a Director of Uncommon Knowledge and has been training therapists for over 15 years.

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