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.