Trauma and how to handle panic attacks

It’s all about the nervous system. Our nervous system is designed to help us survive and keep us alive. That is its whole purpose.   

It has certain built in mechanisms to respond to danger and it triggers the release of adrenaline.   Its automatic survival response is to move, so it prepares us to take action through movement with the choice of fight or flight in order to protect us.  

When we prepare to fight or flee it’s all happening automatically, far away from conscious control.

When we are unable to use up the adrenaline that’s been generated to move for our survival, this energy is not used up and stays in our body.  And it becomes stuck in specific patterns of neuromuscular readiness. A person can stay in a state of acute and then chronic nervous system arousal. This leads to a dysfunctional nervous system.

In this traumatised nervous system state, it is difficult if not impossible to function normally under these circumstances.

The sympathetic nervous system (your personal surveillance system) is always on high alert and scanning for danger. In this state you will feel your heart rate speed up and  your breathing becomes short and shallow, your muscles throughout your entire body are tensed in specific patterns of readiness.

Your blood leaves your brain and rushes to different parts of your body, particularly your arms and legs so that you can take action to fight or flee. This is why you cannot think your way out of panic and this rush of adrenaline makes it hard for you to switch off and relax.

This is what the body does to help us survive.  If we don’t take action and physically use up the adrenaline in the body, we can become stuck or trapped in a sympathetic survival state.

The fight response often leads to confrontation, a rigid body posture, a challenging tone of voice and gestures.  A flight response often leads to a body that cannot be still with constant movement, foot tapping and fidgeting.

The health consequences can include heart disease, high blood pressure, pain, headache, chronic neck, shoulder, and back tension, digestive issues, memory loss, insomnia, and a weakened immune system.

The physical sensations of a panic attack are far from sudden or instant.  Rather, the symptoms begin building up to an hour before the full onset so recognising the early signs of panic can help you prevent attacks.

The combination of adrenaline in your body and past traumatic events that are stored in buried memories, as though they were ongoing and still happening in the present moment, can cause your personal surveillance system to set off an alarm that seems to be firing unreliably or when it doesn’t need to. 

With this initial understanding of the role and responses of our personal surveillance system, we can begin to track it, tune into it with more awareness, and learn how we can support it to return to a more balanced state.

Symptoms that are telling you that your nervous system is wired and needs support and recovery: 

·      Hypervigilance

·      Excessive startle response 

·      Racing heart 

·      Heartburn

·      Restlessness (can’t sit still or bounce legs/fidget)

·      Muscle tension 

·      Chronic pain 

·      Insomnia

·      Nightmares

·      Anxiety

·      Outbursts (saying things we don’t really mean) 

·      Ruminating thoughts 

·      Prolonged irritability 

·      Emotional reactivity

Supressing the fight or flight survival instinct means that you repeatedly resist what your body is biologically trying to do to reset itself.   This on-going nervous system instability results in a full-blown panic attack.  By recognising the early signs, you are able to cope with the waves rather than a full blown tsunami.

How to recognise the early signs of panic

Tracking your own unique nervous system symptoms can help you to have a better understanding of when you are beginning to feel wired.  In therapy I will help you to build awareness to know exactly what your symptoms are, and what you can do to find your way back to a safe and balanced nervous system state.  

I help you to learn how to listen to your body, be aware of the cues of danger and take control to support yourself back to a place of safety and calm.  

In order to build awareness and recognise your nervous system state, you could write it down, draw it or say it out loud to yourself.

Physical Signs – What sensations do I notice in my body?  Heartrate, breathing, posture, tension, digestion, pain, etc.

Behaviours – How are these physical signs affecting me? Sleep, eating habits, energy levels, performance and focus, mood, and relationships. 

Thoughts – Based on these physical signs and behaviours what am I telling myself? This is around your beliefs, such as ‘I am …’, ‘They are …’, ‘The world is …’, and statements that include wording such as ‘everyone, no-one, always, never’, etc.

Triggers – What has stimulated my nervous system?  Environment (lighting, temperature, noise levels), people, situations, smells, sounds, sights, feelings, thoughts, etc.

When I feel panic building inside, why can’t I just think myself out of it?

Because your instinctive survival response is biological.  And also because story follows state.  For every 1 nerve sending information from your brain down into your body, you have 9 nerves sending information from your body up to your brain.

The mind tells a story based on the information it receives from the nervous system.  These beliefs then form the basis of how we live our lives and feed our anxious thoughts.

What should I do when I feel panic building inside?

Contrary to all the popular advice you’ve been given to “Take a deep breath to calm down” please avoid doing this!  

Taking deep breaths actually revs up your nervous system, because you take in too much oxygen and release excess carbon dioxide.  This may lead to low levels of carbon dioxide in your blood which causes many of the symptoms that you feel if you hyperventilate.

Your instinctive fight or flight survival response wants to move, so shaking is how your body and nervous system uses up adrenaline and releases muscle tension.  

Using this natural form of movement helps your body to release the build-up of energy in your nervous system and complete the cycle of activation.

How to shake it off:

·      Flick your hands like you’re shaking off sticky honey

·      Lie on your back and run in the air with your legs and arms

·      Stand up and shake your arms, legs and whole body

·      Move your body energetically in any way that feels right for you like bouncing up and down, running on the spot or jumping

·      Stomp your feet on the ground as fast as you can as if you were running

What is the best way to breathe when I feel anxious or panicky?

Avoid deep breaths! Rather try to just breathe intentionally in and out at a normal or shallow rate, as this can increase carbon dioxide levels and reduce distressing symptoms.  


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