by Antonella De Giuli
“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star”
(Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher, poet, composer, critic. Röcken – Germany, 15 October 1844 – Weimar – Germany, 25 August 1900)
A pounding heart . . . feeling as if about to faint . . . a constricted chest . . . gasping for breath . . . These are the most frequent symptoms of a panic attack. And the physical symptoms are often accompanied by horribly upsetting thoughts: fear of losing control, worry about not being able to overcome the attack, of going crazy, of dying.
For anyone unfamiliar with the problem, a panic attack is an episode of intolerable anxiety that comes on suddenly, without apparent reason, and can last up to twenty minutes. The physical symptoms and the negative thoughts both are extremely intense.
Following such a powerful experience, people often develop a “fear of fear”— they become afraid that another attack will occur, and they may start to interpret normal body signals as indications that another attack is on the way. Unfortunately, that just increases a person’s physiological feeling of anxiety.
After multiple panic attacks, people may begin to avoid places, people, or situations that they consider anxiety-provoking, because they worry that those situations will trigger new attacks. Instead, they start to seek out scenarios that feel reassuring. That behavior, however, also starts to limit their freedom and interaction in the world.
What causes a panic attack? There are multiple reasons, including a genetic predisposition. Other potential triggers include stress, negative feelings toward school or work, general worries, and the feeling of being “trapped” (sometimes without even understanding how or why) and not knowing how to escape. If a person is unaware of these core issues, and/or fails to address them, anxiety is likely to increase, sometimes to the point of causing a panic attack.
Once a panic attack occurs, sufferers often feel helpless and frustrated, and even inadequate for failing to maintain control over their own lives. Other feelings may follow: shame (especially when attacks take place in public), anger (for failing to manage the attacks), and fear of being judged by others.
One important treatment that has been shown to work well for panic attacks is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, combined with prescription medication.
According to this cognitive model, events do not determine how people feel instead, what matters is how people view events and how people live events through their thoughts. For example, for a person with a panic disorder, the thought of having a panic attack produces a state of terrible anxiety that in turn causes the appearance of physical symptoms, followed by crippling thoughts.
To treat the disorder, it’s key to recognize and tackle its causes, but another important part of therapy may be the practice of Mindfulness. This is a daily practice that helps people increase their tolerance of anxiety so they can live without constant fear of the “next attack.”
Mindfulness is a method to achieve “awareness,” allowing people to pay attention to what’s happening in the present moment with curiosity, without judgement and without being captured by one’s own thoughts, whether those thoughts are positive, neutral, or negative.
When people suffer from panic attacks, they often become completely involved in the experience. They become “immersed” in negative thoughts or fears, or they try with all their strength to “remove the problem,” avoiding situations which could trigger an attack, putting all their energy into “fighting” the problem.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
Mindfulness promotes a completely different approach.
Most people can’t avoid the negative and difficult elements of life. But, through awareness, it is possible to comprehend discomfort and suffering, and to “let it be,” even while we do not like it.
By practicing awareness, we can progressively learn to get in better touch with our minds, to appreciate every moment of life and to increase our ability to respond effectively to a wide variety of situations, both negative and positive.
Mindfulness can help direct our attention to the present moment. The idea is to understand and accept what’s happening, and to distance oneself from catastrophic thoughts about possible negative events in the future, including illness, misfortune, or another attack. Practicing awareness helps optimize one’s ability to recognize and deal with the causes of the disorder, which is not the actual attacks, but the reasons why the original attacks occurred.
If we can exist in the present moment, accepting every experience in the moment it happens, without considering a “before” and “after,” we are learning to look at ourselves with clarity and kindness. We can start to understand that any concerns for the future are simply ideas created by our own mind. Looking at ourselves with compassion allows us to begin a journey freeing us from self-limiting beliefs (“I will never make it . . . “), from fear, and from any sense of shame.
Remember, all we can do in life is act with best intentions, knowing that we do not have the ability to control all effects or results of our actions.
As Gandhi said: “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”