Panic attacks—don’t you just love ‘em? You can be strolling along, everything fine and dandy, when suddenly you feel tense, your fingers twitch, your breathing quickens, and you feel like you’re losing control.
While panic attacks sometimes seem unpredictable, for myself I’ve realized two different types of thought patterns normally precede an attack:
Type 1: When too many thoughts and worries vie for your attention all at once.
Type 2: When you obsessively focus on one worry to the exclusion of experiencing anything else going on around you.
The best way I can explain the first type of thought pattern is to reference a scene from Doctor Who. The Doctor’s companion, Donna, has just looked into the heart of the TARDIS and seen the entire universe. That universe (all of it) is inside her head, and she can’t cope with it. That’s exactly what it feels like—as if so many thoughts and worries are darting through your head, you’ve got an expanding universe filling your mind. You lose control, feel lost in the vastness . . . and panic.
The second is more subtle but just as potent. Imagine a kitten’s claw getting caught in a woolen sweater. Then imagine prying the kitten’s claw loose while she just as vigorously holds on. Your mind picks one thought and latches onto it so hard it seems nothing you can do will unhook it. Your focus spins into this one thought to the point you can’t concentrate on anything else . . . so you panic.
In both cases, for me, the panic comes when I feel myself losing control and unable to either find a foothold in the vastness of swirling thoughts or to unhook the way my entire world now orbits around just one of them.
So what do we do? I’m still trying to answer that. My number one recommendation is this: do not run from your fears. If you feel a panic attack starting, if you feel the universe begin to expand, if you feel your vision narrowing, do not run. Running gives the fears and the sense of helplessness power. Instead, acknowledge how you feel, acknowledge the thought pattern, then face it.
I’m still working through the last part—how to best face it. It seems to me that each thought pattern is the other’s opposite. When we lose ourselves in the universe, we need to find a way to narrow it back down. When we obsess over one thought, we need to find a way to broaden our vision—to find the balance.
What has helped me may not help you, and you may experience panic attacks completely differently. For myself, when the universe expands, I know I need to face what I’m dealing with, accept it, and welcome it in. That gives me a solid base. After that, it helps me to take all those swirling thoughts and voices and visualize them each (very briefly—you’ve a lot to get through!) stating their concern to me. I can then briefly address each voice or thought, which allows it to rest and quiet while I move to the next.
For getting hooked on one thought . . . it’s a little trickier. Honestly, I’m still exploring options for both types of thought patterns. You might ask yourself why you are so hooked on that one thought? Are you afraid of something else? Is obsessing over that thought a safety mechanism your brain uses to protect you? Try peeking beneath the thought to see what’s at the core. To do this, accepting the thought pattern and embracing the associated feelings is key (Sheryl Paul’s work was pivotal in helping me understand this – If you struggle with obsessing over one particular thought, and especially if you have relationship anxiety as well, I highly recommend reading her blog and checking out her courses).
But what about you? This is a snippet of my experience and a few attempts to understand and deal with my anxious thought patterns. What patterns do you encounter? Have you learned what helps and what doesn’t? Do you have a technique to share?