“Symptoms of panic-attacks are uncomfortable, but not dangerous.”
If there was one message that would best sum up Dr Harry Barry's work in the field of panic disorder it's that the quickest and most effective way to eliminate panic attacks is to stand still and face them head on.
As hard as it will be for those suffering from panic attacks to believe, Dr. Barry stresses them to some of the most easily-treatable mental health conditions, and that the success rates for proper application of a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach dwarfs all other panic attack interventions. But before we explore this philosophy, let's first define what we're dealing with.
Panic Attack Symptoms
Panic attack symptoms can vary from individual to individual depending on the specific manifestation of their panic disorder, but the most common physical symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Racing heart rate or palpitations
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Hot flashes or chills
- Chest pain or discomfort
In addition to these physical sensations, a panic disorder and panic attacks tend to come paired with a host of mental health symptoms including panic, intense fear, distress, discomfort and even terror. Some panic attack sufferers may suffer from derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself), as well as the fear of going crazy or losing control.
This panic attack symptoms list above is by no means comprehensive but it may serve as a helpful reference point for panic disorder sufferers who are experiencing panic attacks.Dr Harry Barry
Dr. Harry Barry is a panic disorder specialist and author of several books about panic disorder, panic attacks and anxiety. Dr. Barry has been helping people overcome panic disorder for over 30 years, during which time he's employed cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) as his main tool to treat panic attack sufferers from all around the world. Dr. Barry is also an accomplished author, penning 9 books on mental health issues, including the critically-acclaimed Anxiety And Panic - How to reshape your anxious mind and brain, which is an absolute must read for anyone suffering from generalized anxiety disorder or panic attacks.
Panic Disorder Origins
According to Dr Barry, the root of a panic disorder is a misunderstanding of panic attacks. That's because panic is nothing more than an evolutionary response to a perceived threat. It is precisely because we feel anxiety and panic that we were able to survive as a species.
The problem, says Dr Barry, is that the modern-day mind misunderstands what panic attacks are trying to communicate, which causes our brains to assign inaccurate meanings to these events. When repeated often enough, the process of perceiving threats that aren't actually there (I'm dying of a heart attack, my friend will never forgive me, intimacy always leads to pain etc), the sufferer begins to anticipate the fear and anxiety, thus creating a panic disorder.
Why Panic Attacks?
When the part of the brain known as the amygdala experiences an event (or thought) it interprets as dangerous or life-threatening, it releases a surge of chemicals like adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol to enable the individual to deal with the danger. The problem, however, is that the amygdala - being the somewhat primitive part of the brain that it is - misinterprets many innocuous sensations as genuine threats. In fact, the amygdala can be devastatingly terrible at distinguishing between a real threat – such as coming across a tiger in the woods – and an unlikely perceived one – such as fainting during a big presentation at work.
In the latter example, if the presenter suffers from panic attacks or an anxiety related condition, the amygdala - and thus the body - will fire off in the exact same way it would when facing the tiger: the muscles will contract in anticipation of having to fight or flee, the breathing will quicken and become shallower to better oxygenate the blood, the hands may become cold as blood rushes away from the extremities to major muscle groups, and the heart will race as it works to facilitate all the above.
Of course, since the threat is not as obvious in the workplace as it is in the jungle (and, in many situations, is even less obvious than that), the person experiencing the panic attack assigns inaccurate meaning to the event – most often that they are in the midst of a heart-attack, losing control, or “going crazy”.
How To Stop Panic Attack Symptoms
According to Dr Barry, the key to stop panic attacks is first in educating individuals suffering from panic disorders about the physiology of their experiences, and then assuring them that while symptoms of panic-attacks are uncomfortable, they are not dangerous, a central idea in all of Dr Barry's writing. According to Barry, not even repeated panic attacks pose a risk to the body. After all, what good would a threat-reaction system be if it damaged its host in the process?
Armed with this knowledge, Dr Barry instructs his patients to forgo the deep-breathing exercises and distraction strategies that are prevalent in so much of panic disorder literature. Barry does so under the belief that these panic disorder "strategies" serve only to signal the brain that there is indeed a threat to be dealt with, unnecessarily prolonging the process of a panic attack. Instead Barry recommends anyone caught in the midst of unexpected panic attacks pretend their "feet are glued to the ground” while taking note of the physical sensations racing through the body through the eyes of an impartial observer.
According to Barry, experiencing panic attacks in this way allows the physiological process to cycle through as intended, a process which, incredibly enough for anyone who's battled through hours-long attacks, will resolve itself in no longer than 10-15 minutes. In fact Dr Barry asks his patients to try purposely triggering panic attacks as a way to regain control and perfect the strategy. What patients often find is that intentionally manufacturing a panic attack is extremely difficult to do (like the reverse of someone telling you not to think about a pink elephant), a realization that can in and of itself bring an incredible sense of power to what once seemed like a powerless situation. And although confronting the anxiety monster head-on can seem like a frightening undertaking, Dr Barry points out that continuing to experience panic attacks indefinitely should seem a lot scarier.
“The more you try to run away from a panic attack, the more it will run after you; so go towards the symptoms.” - Dr Harry Barry
So the next time a panic attack or bout of anxiety has you running away from your emotions, glue your feet in place and work to find comfort in your discomfort.
"Turn and face your enemy once, it will never be an enemy again." -Dr Barry