You are sitting on a chair listening to a conversation between 2 people. One of them is your mentor- a psychologist with a specialty in clinical psychology – and the other is a voluntary participant in a clinical research study. The place is an office space on the 22nd floor of a hospital building. It is 11 am on a rather warm and sunny October day. Your chair is leaning against the wall, and your large black tea is sitting conveniently to your right on a small rectangular table that seems to serve no other purpose than that for which you are using it. To your left is a small bare window that offers you a view of the blue sky and distant tall buildings. The room is bland, unattractive, and poorly lit. You are listening intently to the conversation between these two people, when suddenly you feel discomfort.
The feeling of discomfort grows exponentially in a matter of seconds; your pulse is pounding, your heart is racing, your body is shaking, and your temperature is rising. You must do something. Your breathing becomes shallow, you feel faint, and you are sweating profusely. Now you really must do something, because you fear that you might be gasping for air very soon, and so you start looking around for exit ways. You are now mentally tracing the various ways that will get you out of the building fast; perhaps the stairway is the best option, because you will certainly not use the elevators and risk being stuck in one. Then, you remember that window! At that moment, you experience instant relief as your feeling of discomfort is waning slowly, because you know that if you need air you can just open the window. Your pulse is no longer racing, nor is your heart, and your breathing is starting to follow a normal rhythm. Now that you have regained clarity, you realize that you have just had a panic attack.

Experiencing a panic attack

A panic attack does not last very long; most episodes last a few seconds, but the intensity is such that after the body goes back to normal, the person feels as if they were depleted of all their energy. Legs are wobbly and can no longer sustain the weight of the body, the body is shaking, and the mind remains clouded and confused. Reeling from a panic attack takes longer that the episode itself. It is for those reasons that you will go to great extent to avoid anything that could trigger another episode. The symptoms of a panic attack are the same for everyone, but the actual experience of it is really what determines how a person is going to react going forward.

After a panic attack

After an episode of panic attack, the brain forms an association between its occurrence and the whereabouts of the sufferer. This process leads to an automatic avoidance response of the site where the panic attack occurred; be it a store, a particular street, or even a room in one’s home. Once formed, the mental association consolidates the avoidance behavior; which means that being at the site where the panic attack occurred, or even thinking about it in some extreme cases, could trigger another panic attack. Subsequently, the very act of avoiding the place where one had a panic attack further solidifies the mental association, thereby creating a vicious loop.

The experience of anxiety in comparison is less intense than a panic attack, but it is chronic. It can be compared to a feeling of discomfort that will not go away. When in the prongs of an anxiety attack, it is almost impossible to reach a state of relaxation, because your body is flooded with hormones that keep your body and mind on high alert.  It is important to make a clear distinction between an anxiety disorder and normal anxiety. The latter is a normal, intermittent emotion brought on by a specific situation, while the an anxiety disorder is chronic, disproportionate to the situation, and it interferes with the person’s normal life, hence it is referred to as a disorder.

Living with anxiety can be a difficult feat, because it can put a strain on one’s life. For example, if you suffer from social anxiety, going out for coffee may require herculean efforts. Furthermore, if anxiety co-occurs with panic attacks, which it often does, then the difficulties are multiplied tenfold. I know from personal experience how difficult it can be, but I also know that an anxiety disorder is not a life sentence, as there is always a way to overcome it. Take action and join the MindRiselife anxiety hacking revolution!



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