The Irony of Panic

A very weird thing happens when a person has a few panic attacks out of the blue.  If you’re like me, you were so terrified by the experience that you decide you never ever ever want to have another one.   Conscious and subconscious work begins at this point, to guard against this gruesome new threat. The result, through no fault of your own, is that a fox is now guarding your hen house. Let me tell you how that happened and what you can do about it.

First, a brief brain anatomy discourse. If you’re “normal” your five senses are bombarded nearly constantly with data that you see, hear, smell, touch and taste.  So much comes at you, much of it repetitive, that you need a screen or something to filter it. The guards at the gate in our brains are the amygdala and the hippocampus. These two small organs receive, store and pass along data as it arrives at you. The hippocampus essentially converts short term memory to long term and sorts and files experiences. The amygdala (there’s a pair of each – for both hemispheres) is the action organ. It’s the amygdala’s job to alert us to danger, and anyone who’s had a panic attack knows that the amygdala  forces a highly charged cocktail of hormones through your nervous system designed to turn you into a primitive beast that could fight another primitive beast.

Let’s break this down and see what happened – what you unwittingly did to create your current state of high anxiety. You had a panic attack and it made quite an impression on you. Then you had another and another and soon became scared spitless of having yet another. You begin to avoid places and circumstances and you’ve told your brain to be on high alert for one of these, these panic attacks.  Your body and brain has a system for taking care of threats, and the “system” is to shoot adrenaline into your tissue so you will be so suddenly strong and single minded that you can fight or flee with super human strength.

If the amygdala could talk, a conversation like this could take place at the time you decide you need to do something about these panic attacks.

   You: (post panic attack) Holy shit! What was that??!! I’ve never been so scared in my life – what happened to me??!!

 Amygdala: “Norapinephrine”, or what you call “adrenaline.” I just shot a blast of it through your nervous system.

You: Are you sick? Why would you do that?

Amygdala: It was an emergency. I’m here to take care of you – to help you get away from trouble.

You: I was reading a magazine in the library. What “trouble?”

Amygdala: A fluorescent light blinked.

You: And so you, logically, turned a blinking light into a 5 alarm emergency?

Amygdala: Hey, I’m just the messenger here. I don’t program myself, you know.

You: Now you’ve got me scared to death of panic attacks. Since you’re here to “protect” me, how are you going to protect me from panic attacks? What would you do if I felt threatened by a panic attack?

Amygdala: I’d shoot you up with monster juice.

You: You and I need to talk.

And so you do. Schedule daily visualization sessions so that you’re talking with the amygdala, convincing it to go back to its traditional role of guarding against actual danger – you know, mad dogs, mad people and mad cars. Put another organ in charge of watching out for panic attacks so you can get a break from this constant, trembling state of mind you’re in. How about putting your spleen in charge of panic attacks and the amygdala in charge of sabre toothed tigers that started this whole mess in the first place. Daily, positive messages to your subconscious is how we build new neural pathways that can change our messages.

All this is part of the Recovery Program in Un-agoraphobic, which will be published in mid November.

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3 thoughts on “The Irony of Panic

  1. I am wondering if there is a chemical component to this phenomena also. My Dr. wants me to try Lexapro to improve my mood and lessen the anxiety.

    • The use of “chemical” in discussing brain science creates problems with interpretation. “Chemical imbalance” is an often used term for which there is not a clear definition, nor an agreement that there is such a thing. The truth is, you can make your mind do tricks with certain introduced chemicals – such as Lexapro, one of the SSRI inhibitor types of antidepressant.

      Other meds in this family include Paxil, Selexa, Prozac, Zoloft. Briefly, the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor meds operate by extending the life of feel good hormones such as dopamine and serotonin. When these are released in your brain, most are taken up by receptors, giving you glowy feelings. The material left behind is scooped back up by a process called “reuptake” for later use. What Lexapro and other SSRI drugs do is essentially delay reuptake from occurring so you get a little more exposure to the good stuff.

      I recommend that you go to everydayhealth.com to read reviews on Lexapro. There’s disagreement over the effectiveness of antidepressants of this sort, so you owe it to yourself to learn all you can. I highly recommend the following two books as the best I’ve read on mood drugs and mental illness:

      When Panic Attacks, by medical doctor David Burns takes a look at mental illness and how we’re treating it. His view on psychotropic medications is highly critical of medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies.
      Cracked: The Unhappy Truth About Psychiatry by James Davies takes on psychiatrists in particular and reveals what he considers an unhealthy relationship between prescribers and the psychotropic med industry. Both these books, interestingly, reveal studies showing the difference for patients taking any of the SSRI’s and patients taking placebos was so slight as to make the real and the fake nearly even in effectiveness. Dr. Burns in particular emphasizes the value of psychotherapy in changing moods, versus the chemical tricks of modern medicine.

      I personally feel that meds should be a last resort for the chronically nervous and mildly depressed. Such things as psychotherapy, meditation, and daily activities such as those found in the book Un-Agoraphobic can be all a person needs to brighten the picture.

      • Thank you for this very informative and timely reply. I am more determined now to try everything I can before putting myself in a position where I must rely on meds. I also plan to read your book when it comes out.

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