Don’t worry. This photo doesn’t really have to do with my topic. It’s more for looks or to grab your attention since my topic today may not yield a pretty photo.
My thoughts today are about panic attacks and panic symptoms. Many people suffer from recurring panic, waking up from sleep and feeling panicked, having symptoms when nothing bad is happening, and consistently worrying about when panic is going to strike again. Actually part of the criteria for having panic disorder is worrying about when the panic is going to strike again and adapting one’s behavior to avoid panic attacks. So often people come to therapy seeking ways to get rid of panic attacks and panic symptoms. They try meditation, relaxation, breathing, avoidance, distraction, and any number of ways around it. But the truth is that we are wired to be able to panic and can’t get rid of this, we can manage it. AND, what continues to drive panic disorder and panic attacks and what makes them worse in the moment, is FEAR of having a panic attack, FEAR of not having the control to stop it, and FEAR that it won’t stop.
Here is where the poop part comes in. Have you ever had to go really bad? I mean really, really bad? Like you might not make it? That kind of bad? I have sat around with friends and colleagues from time to time telling embarrassing moments and always there is one or two poop stories. Someone in the group always has a story about when they didn’t make it and had to deal with the worse-case scenario: the poop being released from the body not in a bathroom. Poop is a bodily function. We all know that and work with it. But, at times, you gotta go and at other times, you really gotta go and you have to tolerate feeling EXTREMELY uncomfortable until the body can release. Most adults have learned how to hold it, put on a straight face, tolerate the unpleasantness, and eventually find a bathroom, allowing the poop process of the body to do it’s thing. Sometimes it is painful. Sometimes it comes at the most inopportune times, but we “deal” with it and when I say “deal”, I mostly mean we tolerate it.
So, let me relate this to panic. Panic is a bodily function. We are build to have a fight or flight system to get us away from threatening situations and it HAS to be this way. Because of this, any one can experience a panic attack when our brain perceives threat. The problem is that sometimes our brain interprets threat when there is none. And, if we fear the panic response, this actual fear of panic causes more panic to occur. Once the body is in panic mode, it can’t just get out no matter how much breathing we do. There is a process that has to go from start to finish. Breathing can help to tolerate this, but I have clients that find themselves getting discouraged because their methods to stop panic don’t work. The key to any anxiety challenge is exposure. Other than feeling tremendously uncomfortable, what is REALLY so bad about a panic attack? If we can tolerate needing to poop and holding it, we can tolerate a panic attack. I don’t mean to make light of a serious subject, but fearing the uncomfortable actually causes more fear response to occur. And, the thing is, people can handle really unpleasant things, like really needing to poop. Letting the panic run the circuit and seeing a panic moment or panic symptoms as a bodily function, tolerating the extreme unpleasantness, and knowing that it will run its course and end can help to actually reduce the intensity and ultimately the frequency of panic over time. When people actually expose themselves to the fear, the brain learns that it can handle it. Exposure to panic, by actually allowing it if one shows up and not fighting the panic attack, is one of the best ways, IF NOT THE BEST WAY, to manage panic attacks.
Until next time,
(Author’s note: I, too, have had panic attacks from time to time and have found that by far, exposure work has helped me personally to manage my anxiety better than any other strategy.)