You may have noticed that your thinking patterns have changed since you started having panic attacks. Generally, thoughts like, “I’m dying! I’m going insane!” I’m having a heart attack! I have to get away before I lose it!” It’s very normal to have thoughts like these bout the physical sensations you may be experiencing with panic attacks. Your brain is reacting in a primitive way to a perceived danger. If there is a danger, your brain does not give you time what to do.
Rather, it reacts on an instinctual level, trying to get you safe as quickly as possible. The problem is when we bring our more modern, analytical selves into the mix. We try to figure out why we are reacting to stress in such a way. ‘Why did such a basic problem turn into such a frightening event?‘ How can I keep this from happening ever again? You don’t realize that your body was physically reacting in a primitive way to a perceived danger, and you ruminate on the fearful event that caused the symptoms. You keep playing it over and over and over again in your mind, so that any emotions you were feeling that triggered the panic episode are relived again and again. You have started to develop what is commonly called ‘The Anxious Brain’
The Anxious Brain
Throughout your life and all of your experiences, you have unknowingly built up an understanding about the world around you and you have learned how you react to certain situations. Imagine you suddenly react to something differently. You feel a tingling in your hands or your heart starts to pound. These are not the normal reactions you have to whatever situation you are in, so your mind starts to analyze and tries to figure out what the possible reasons could be for those physical sensations. As your brain is trying to figure out what the reasons are for these sensations, it is not likely going to immediately understand that you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety. It is more likely to start worrying about the more serious medical conditions that come with tingling hands and a pounding heart. This causes more anxiety, which seems to make the physical symptoms worse. Eventually, you train your brain to search for any and all sensations that might signal a physical problem, which triggers anxiety and anxious symptoms, and so on. The more this happens, the more likely you will have a similar experience every time you have any type of anxiety or panic episode. Even after you feel better, you will start to worry about what just happened and what situations caused it. You will start to avoid any situations that may (or may not) cause you to panic. You have successfully trained your brain into immediately thinking the worst in any situation – thereby increasing your worries and fears a great deal.
So what exactly can you do to fix an anxious brain? The first thing you have to do is recognize and be aware of the chain of thoughts that cause your anxiety to peak. The anxious brain will misinterpret feelings in our body as a life or death scenario, making you feel worse and worse as time goes on. For example, you are out at the movies, and you notice that you had a heart palpitation. Then you start to breathe quicker to try to calm your heart, which only makes your heart beat faster. The quick breathing dries your throat and makes it harder to swallow – each of your physical sensations coupled with your anxious brain turn these into a panic episode before you even realize what is happening. As you get more frightened your behavior might change – you might end up leaving the movie to go to a ‘safe” place – the bathroom, for example. The more you react to your physical sensations, the more your brain starts to think something really might be wrong. This is your anxious brain hard at work. What you need to do is be clear with yourself and tell your anxious brain that you simply had a heart palpitation – stop the cascade of anxious thoughts before they even start. You also need to be aware of that – unfortunately – you have an anxious brain. You are likely to experience things out of context to what they really are. Anxious thoughts are going to enter your mind. As long as you are aware of them right away, you can deal with them as they come. Kind of like bringing an annoying relative with you everywhere you go. Your anxious brain is part of your life, but it is not the way you will be forever. If you begin to retrain your brain into thinking rationally about your physical reality instead of blowing it out of proportion, you will eventually stop noticing every twinge, muscle spasm, or minor heart palpitation or you will accept them for what they are – normal.
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