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Panic, Don't Panic

Tuesday, June 04, 2013
By John Goetz, M.Ed. L.P.C.

No, I am not writing about the economy. I am referring to an anxiety based disorder called “panic attacks”. Characteristics of a panic attack include a sudden feeling of intense fear or anxiety that may be characterized by shortness of breath or hyper ventilating, heart pounding in the chest, feeling out of control, sweating, nausea, chest pain or tightness, dizziness and shaking, and or numbness and tingling. One might believe that he or she is having a heart attack.

We are not sure what causes a panic attack. Possible causes may be stress, recent trauma, health problems, alcohol and other drug use or depression. We do know that during a panic attack the body’s natural response to perceived danger is being triggered. We call this the “fight or flight” response. We also know these attacks tend to last 5-20 minutes and that the fear of an attack can intensify the event. Treatment includes counseling and medication; a combination of both increases the effectiveness of each.

I would like to provide you with a narrative which may help a person suffering these attacks begin to manage them. My story begins with you imagining yourself in Hawaii. You are surfing 5-10 foot waves off the coast of your favorite beach. You find yourself pumped with excitement, amazed by the beauty of your surroundings, and then you fall. The wave you were gracefully riding is crashing down on you, pulling you down to the bottom with a force you have never experienced before. Now comes the moment of truth, every fiber in your body tells you to fight/panic, to fight your way to the surface, but you remember a vague thought. This thought is telling you to relax and let the wave pull you until it releases you, then find the surface with your air bubbles, swim for it and take a breath. If you must, ride the wave again as it pushes you down like a crazy roller coaster until it gives you the opportunity to swim your way to calmer water.

A panic attack is like a wave crashing down on you, pulling you deeper, and holding you down as you fight against it. Like an experienced surfer, you must think your way to safety. Recognize and name the signs of an attack. Talk to yourself saying,” I am having a panic attack. I will experience the following feelings (anxiety/fear); my body will react in these ways (my breathing will get short and shallow, my heart will pound in my ears, etc.), but it will only last 5-20 minutes. I will survive this; it will pass over me.” Once you do this, you can use other techniques you learn in counseling to “swim to calmer waters”. The bottom line is if you can talk yourself through the event and use behavioral techniques and/or medications to control the most severe symptoms, you will decrease the intensity and the duration of these attacks. You will then be in a position to look at possible causal factors and deal effectively with them.

Note: I apologize to any professional surfers if my surfing analogy is not 100% accurate.

(John Goetz is a Licensed Professional Counselor at Edmond Family Counseling 341-3554)
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