Understanding what is REALLY going on while having a panic attack is half the battle when it comes to the cure. The problem with a panic attack is not the physical symptoms but the fact that one becomes scared of the physical symptoms. As I have stated already, the symptoms of a panic attack are unpleasant but not harmful, your amygdala is trying to protect you, not harm you.
Your amygdala sees a perceived threat, fires adrenalin to get you ready to fight or flight. You feel the discharge of adrenalin in your stomach from the adrenal glands that sit at the top of your kidneys, your breathing and heart rate speeds up, you start sweating to cool you down when fighting or fleeing, you might feel dizzy from the increased intake of oxygen.
You have taken in a lot of oxygen to do the fighting or fleeing but the problem is that you have not used it up by fighting or fleeing, so there is now excessive oxygen in your lungs and the ratio of oxygen to CO2 in out of proportion.
The primitive mind then has to react to this by closing the airways (you feel your throat tightening) to prevent a further intake of oxygen until the excessive oxygen is burned up. This is what really scares most people is the belief that they are going to smoother.
Nothing could be further from the truth when you need more oxygen the mind will get you breathing again. (Have you ever tried to hold your breath as long as possible in the past, what happened? You were forced to start breathing again – you can really trust your primitive mind to look after your oxygen needs).
You can now understand why people used to breath into paper bags during a panic attack. They were simply recycling the air in the lungs so that no new oxygen was being breathed in. However, you don't need to do that – just let the system regulate itself. The best thing to do during a panic attack is DO NOTHING, just let it do its own thing.
You are often given the advice to breath more deeply during a panic attack, you don't need more oxygen, you have TOO MUCH already. In fact, the best advice is to breathe out the air with excessive oxygen and then breath the air the correct oxygen to Co2 ratio. However, there is no need to do anything. Taking any action is only causing you to panic about the panic, and that is the last thing you need.
You rationally know that there is no external threat as you experience the unpleasant feelings so you stay put. This staying put is actually working against what you should be doing according to your primitive mind, that is taking action of fighting or fleeing. So, you are actually going against your instinct by not fighting or fleeing.
The energy of the adrenalin release isn't discharged by fight or fleeing, so it has to discharge inside your body, this is what causes the powerful physical symptoms. You now realise that you had been scared of adrenalin in your body. Why should be scared any more adrenalin, knowledge sets you free?
Think of the initial trigger that scares the amygdala as throwing a pebble into the water in a pond, the ripples are like the discharging of adrenalin in your body. The ripples of water from the pebble in the pond decreases until it reaches the bank. However, if you start thinking scary thoughts, it is like throwing more stones into the pond that keeps the water disturbed for longer and makes the ripples larger.
What first scares the amygdala is often termed as the initial or primary fear. They are unthinking, instinctive responses that we have. The response or secondary fear is the way we feel about the primary fear. This is usually the problem with “anxiety”.
However, the primary fear is not always an inherited reaction to a stimulus. The primary fear can be a learned fear and we can also retrain an instinctive primary fear through new understanding. The following paragraph is a good example of this.
Think of a primitive man when he heard thunder and lightning, he ran for his life into the cave. He was scared of it because he didn't understand it. Thunder and lightning have not changed over the years but our understanding of it has changed and so has our behaviour. Thankfully, people no longer do a runner into a building when we hear thunder and see lightning. When you understand primary panic, your behaviour also changes.
Many primary fears are learned from experience, we can become conditioned to fear a situation. For instance, most people don't fear dogs but if you were attacked by a dog you could develop a primary fear of the presence of a dog – not just the dog that attacked you.
The amygdala develops a generalisation when threatened. So, in the case mentioned the person may not just develop a fear of the particular dog that bit you but ALL dogs.
This generalisation is important when it comes to our experiences with other people. This is significant is social anxiety. If you were hurt by one person, you may develop a fear of people in general (unless, you have developed a sense of safety around them – your family for example).
If you were shamed or punished for making mistakes when you were young, you may now fear to make a MISTAKE as an adult. The IMPRESSION you make becomes highly significant for you.