November 7, 2022


One of the most common requests I get when it comes to my 1-2-1 client work is to help people better manage their panic attacks. However, the best way to manage panic attacks is to not have them in the first place.

But of course if you’re coming to see me then that ship has very probably sailed. You’re here because you’ve already had a panic attack…maybe more then one.

Suggesting that we just don’t have them anymore is a little dismissive considering we’re not deliberately trying to have them in the first place. In fact, we’re actually trying pretty hard not to.

But contrary to how it feels whether or not we have a panic attack isn’t entirely outside of our control.

Now, if you’ve seen any of my other content regarding panic then you’ve probably heard me say that panic only becomes a repeating problem when a part of our subconscious has flagged certain bodily sensations as an indicator of a potential threat.

Our first panic attack feels like we’re literally about to die and even though we get through it as a result of the perceived deadly threat of that experience a part of our mind is now on the lookout for any similar physical sensations.

We go into a super vigilant self scanning mode that sees us interpreting every benign shift in things like heart rate or breathing as a legitimate cause for alarm. 
Now every time we notice our body doing something even remotely out of the ordinary we start to panic, thus causing the very effect we’re trying so desperately to avoid.

Put simply our mind is now mistaking our body’s natural process as some kind of life threatening malfunction and we’re panicking about the perceived possibility of panic.

But whilst this might explain why panic repeats it doesn’t necessarily explain why it started in the first place. So, if our mind only started scanning for threat based on what it learnt from our first panic attack, what actually caused that first one?

Is this just a disorder?

The mistake we often make is to assume that we had our first panic attack because we have developed or maybe were even born with some kind of panic disorder.

Now even though there are no actual medical tests we can have done to confirm or refute this we might still find ourself in the situation where a medical professional gives us a formal diagnosis.

But this is of course the inevitable conclusion when we have no other explanation as to why that first panic attack occurred. After all, our life wasn’t actually under threat at that time.

If someone were to attack or threaten us, going into a state of fight or flight would feel appropriate. However, if the only thing attacking us is our own body, that doesn’t feel quite so appropriate.

So as a result we draw the only conclusion available to us…that we have a malfunctioning panic response. We conclude…and often get told…that there’s something wrong with us.
Then any further instances of panic simply reinforce that notion that we have a dysfunctional panic response, leading us to probably look no further for an explanation.

But, theres’a much simpler and encouraging explanation as to why that first panic attack occurred.

Almost every single client I’ve ever seen who are dealing with panic attacks has a similar story about when it all began. That initial instance of panic came at a time when they were under some kind of heightened emotional or physical stress and they were often for some reason low on energy or physical resources. Perhaps it was a time in their life when they were in a prolonged phase of pressure or maybe they’d neglected their rest or nutrition in some way. Maybe they were short of sleep, or had even been up all night.
For whatever reason the story is always of how they were in a state where they were at a low ebb and as such (and this is the important bit) they were vulnerable to slightly more exaggerated physical shifts.

Now let’s be clear here, things like heart rate and breathing rate, muscle tension…all these things HAVE to change from moment to moment because the amount of energy going in and out of our body doesn’t happen at a uniform rate. Our body has to regulate the actioning of our day to day functions (no matter how random those might be) and it does that without any conscious effort on our part.
However, when we are short of sleep, or low on nutrients or just overly stressed and relying more on adrenaline to keep going than we normally would be then those physical shifts might become slightly more extreme.

In these instances we might then experience the kind of confusing physical response that causes our subconscious to sound the alarm.

Perhaps our heart suddenly started racing, perhaps we suddenly felt light headed or hot and sweaty. Maybe our muscles even started to tremor and shake.
There can potentially be dozens of different ways our body might react to our battery getting unusually low and whilst none of them are life threatening they might just feel alarming enough for your mind to interpret them as something threatening.
It’s at that moment…when our subconscious becomes confused about the source of the physical response that we might unfortunately go into a state of panic.

And that’s how it begins.

The disordered and unwanted panic response is the result of a confusion in the subconscious leading to our mind interpreting our physical wellbeing as being under threat.
That’s when our mind goes into that super vigilant scanning mode and starts the feedback loop of the fear of panic causing panic.

So what can we do?

Stopping our mind from revisiting that panic response can very often simply be about understanding that panic isn’t life threatening.

Panic won’t kill you, even though it feels like it can. It’s just uncomfortable for a short time.

But even if we understand that those regular slightly less exaggerated day to day physical shifts aren’t anything to do with a malfunctioning panic response and are perfectly normal…even if we know we’re not vulnerable to panic striking ‘out of nowhere’ and it was only our fear of it that caused it to keep happening, what does it mean that it was able to happen before we had that fear?
Does the fact it was caused by leaving ourself low on energy and resources mean that we should be worried about doing that again in the future? Will this leave us highly anxious about getting tired or missing a meal or becoming too stressed at work.

Well whilst that’s very often what happens, there’s actually no reason why it should.

The initial panic wasn’t directly caused by our battery reaching empty, it was caused by the confusion we felt about the resulting physical sensations. It was the fear that the physical response meant something sinister that caused the panic, not the shortage of physical resources itself.

Once we accept that if we leave ourself at a low ebb we might expect to feel physically below par and even experience strange physical reactions as a result of that, and once we understand that nothing about the way that makes us feel is cause for alarm we can expect to be no longer vulnerable to panicking about that.
If we ever in the future get to the stage that we need to rest or refuel then our body is going to let us know that in some way and will do what’s necessary to make sure we don’t ignore that message.
Once we understand this then we are no longer vulnerable to the panic that came from that initial confusion.

So the conclusion to all of this is that it was never your anxiety or panic response malfunctioning that was the problem. Your panic response works just fine.

It was the confusion that caused your mind to mistakenly trigger that response.

As we learn and grow and increase our understanding of our own emotional responses, we inevitably become less and less vulnerable to our own mind hitting the panic button, thanks largely to the fact that it now has no reason to do so.

Panic can be incredibly debilitating and have us limiting our engagement with many potentially enjoyable aspects of life. However, we can get the other side of it and get back in control of the way we think, feel and respond. Understanding that panic can’t hurt, harm or kill you and realising that it's only the fear of it that causes it can ultimately help what we previously perceived to be a bit of a monster, actually doesn’t need to seem that scary anymore.

By: Tim Box

The Control System | Master

November 7, 2022
Enjoying this article?

You might also be interested in...

Like what you read?

Did this article raise any queries you might have?

Please contact us and we can help you, whatever your question...

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

By filling out this form, you agree to the terms laid out in our privacy policy. To read more, please click here.