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Panic attacks... could they merely mask our fear of anxiety sensations?

Panic attacks... that feeling many of us know so well. The pounding heart, sweating palms, feeling disorientated, ragged breathing, and your mind races like a hamster in a wheel... 'It's all getting worse you mind screams', scanning for more alarming signs. 'Surely part of your hand has just turned numb.' your thoughts tell you. 'It's a stroke! This time it will be the knackers yard for you!' You panic more as you scrabble around looking for your phone to dial 999. Perhaps the paramedics come round and reassure you. Maybe you speak to an old GP friend or call a national panic line. Perhaps your neighbour happens to pops in to tell you the house next door has been burgled and this diverts you. Suddenly you calm down. The fear ebbs. All is well. You reflect that maybe you did over react a teensy bit but if felt soooo real.

It is quite shocking to note that, in the last 2-years, 60% of adults in the UK suffered with anxiety that signifcantly disrupted their life and that 1:10 live with an anxiety disorder (Mental Health Foundation). 1:3 adults have experienced a panic attack and most people have had their first panic attack by their 20's. What's more these statistics are rising. What else do we know about panic? Panic attacks only last between 5-20 minutes. They may seem to go on for longer. That is only because one attack stops - there is a lull - then another starts. Panic attacks can be caused by an external trigger, like an aggressive dog, or an internal trigger, perhaps an unwanted and insidious thought that keeps reminding you of the speech you have to give next week to the firm. Or maybe there seems to be no trigger. We also know that our body can create a host of different symptoms and sensations and these increase during the panic attack.

So how do you know you are having a panic attack? This is the important bit... you only realise that you are having a panic attack when you notice something different is happening to your body. What is it, your mind asks? Perhaps you notice an odd prickling down your arms or a strange trickle of sweat. It is nothing that bad, rather different. If you carefully sit back and observe you will notice that your mind is frantically scanning every part of your body, rooting out new feeling and grading sensations. This happens over and over again. Every perceived new sensation is ranked, compared, magnified and commented on by your thoughts. Here's the nub. Could it be possible that a panic attack is simply being afraid of the unexpected sensations? It's an interesting thought. Before you throw this idea out the window, why not test it out? If you stop scanning your body and focus your mind on something other than the sensations, they will subside. Why? This is because you have shifted away from the limbic system (the more primal part of the brain) and into the executive functioning part of your brain. This activates the parasympathetic system that calms you down. Certainly food for thought and undoubtedly shows you the power of our mind and how important it is to remain aware of what your thoughts are saying...

Nathelie Tudberry is an accredited CBT hypnotherapist and coach who specialises in burnout and anxiety. She has worked in the legal field for over 20 years supporting legal professionals and law firms. She also works for a national charity as a panic and anxiety helpline volunteer.

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