(gasp) I….can’t breathe………(gasp) oh no……….this is so bad! aaah!….......am I gonna die?! oooh!...my chest hurts!...can’t breathe!...I can’t stand this!!!!!
A panic attack comes with a terrible dread that feels immediately dangerous. So uncomfortable, it’s hard to tolerate even being in one’s own skin! The intense feelings trigger an impulse to escape….but from what?
While the same heightened response activated by a wild animal chasing you would not incite a sense of internal dread, in the absence of a physical danger, the emotional anguish of that powerful impulse to flee is unbearable.
If your breathing quickened and your heart sped up while you were running from something scary, there would be no noticeable anxious thoughts. Any thoughts would be laser-focused on a hasty exit. When the threat is emotional or social, there is no escape.
Although it doesn’t sound unsafe to not have approval from someone or to not be able to come to agreement about an important issue at work, the threat of being rejected or misunderstood can be registered in a primitive and pre-conscious part of our brain dedicated to your survival.
This system was vital to our ancestors and you and I are here today because of this powerful mechanism. You and I had forebears who hesitated before going into that particular forest and ran in the other direction while their companions may not have and ended up being lunch for the creature waiting behind the bushes.
Which begs the question, when was the last time you were chased by a wild animal? The closest I came to that kind of frightening scenario happened a long time ago.
When I was 15 yrs old, my aunt and uncle and their friends entrusted me with the care of their 4 children at their friends’ farm, while they went out for dinner one evening. After feeding the kids some dinner, I took them outside to play on the swing set in the yard.
I had heard of this family’s troubles with an ornery bull that had a habit of escaping the corral. Although I was a city girl, I also understood that a bull was an important animal to cattle farming. I was still surprised about what happened next!
Suddenly, I heard Cindy, the dog barking and saw with horror that she was trying to herd the bull back behind the fence. I quickly got the kids into the house and ran over to try to stretch the barbwire gate to latch onto the post. As Cindy did her best to distract him, I picked up the gate to line it up with the fence.
I could hear the bull bellowing and pawing the ground in a menacing way. My heart felt like it was in my throat but mostly my focus was on trying to contain this crazy bull and keep him from tossing the dog and/or me across the barnyard!
As I was pulling the gate closer to the pole, I was alarmed to discover the gate obviously hadn’t been used in a long time and no longer stretched far enough to loop it over the post! The bull now turned his attention to me, no longer concerned about the dog.
I turned and ran back to the house with this big animal chasing me with his snorting amplified in my ears! I yanked the porch door open thinking he was going break through the flimsy screen door! When I slammed the door behind me and dared to look back, good old Cindy had diverted him but now he was stomping around the garden, trampling everything in his path, with dirt and plants flying everywhere.
Whew! I’d made it! The young girls and I were glued to the window watching with wide and wild eyes to what was happening.
Eventually, he calmed down and wandered around, occasionally munching on tender garden leaves looking like Ferdinand himself! As I got the children ready for bed and read them stories, I was aware that he was at times quite close to the house and I kept a watchful eye on him. Not that there was anything I could do but worry that he might bolt until the adults finally returned and got him back behind the fence.
It was only when I finally got the little ones to sleep, that I had time to reflect on what had happened. I was somewhat amazed by the quick action this urban girl had taken to try to deal with a potentially very dangerous situation.
Something in me knew to look for the section of barb-wire fence designed to cordon off the area around the barn. Then to assess that with the dog distracting the bull, I might just have time to pull it shut. And then the instinctive decision to abandon my goal and head for the house.
None of this was deliberated yet I had been propelled into action as my thoughts were immediately focused on what I was to do. The survival mechanism of my brain kicked in just as it was supposed to: likely shaped by years of selective adaptation required by my ancestors. Although there have been many other less dramatic instances of needing to act quickly in emergency situations, that was one of the few times in my life I ran from a “wild” animal! - thankfully!!
And yet, it is this highly efficient automatic process that gets triggered whenever you feel any kind of threat to your well-being. There is nothing truly dangerous (to your survival) about delivering a speech to a group of people. But if you’ve never done this before or the last time was a flop, the threat to your well-being is indicated.
It’s not something you need physical strength for but that doesn’t dawn on your autonomic nervous system as it catapults your heart beat into a galloping pace the moment your name is called to come to the podium.
Even after you have completed your talk and made your conclusions, depending on the thoughts you are down-loading at that moment, it takes some time for rational thought processes to come back online and for your now rapid breathing to slow down to normal. Your activation will either continue or your system will de-escalate, with the recognition that the fire-up was a false alarm – no real danger – you're safe.
In high pressure moments, depending on what is important to you at that moment and how high the stakes are or the possible consequences, you can end up stuck in an internal hell that gets worse and worse as your mind scrambles to frantically make sense of what’s happening.
This hijacks your normally logical mind and you can create thoughts that, although highly unlikely begin to seem more and more feasible: “this is my fault!” or “everyone hates me!” “this always happens to me!” “I can’t do this!” This express train of thoughts picks up speed and before too long, you have magnified the difficulty into a catastrophe.
Because we have adapted from an earlier time of sometimes, extreme physical challenges faced virtually every day, our nervous system organized itself around physical strength to either defend ourselves (fight) or escape (flight). When neither of these actions is possible, we also have the ability to remain very still to avoid detection (freeze).
Animals that also go into freeze state will often need to discharge the physical activation of the survival system by shaking or flapping or some other kind of compulsive physical activity to release the build-up of energy stored in the nervous system. They can then return to homeostasis and go about the business of life in the present moment.
A more human form of discharge can also involve involuntary shaking, crying and even if not acted out, the urgency to do something like pacing or shouting. Our current existence is relatively free form physical danger, at least on a daily basis, but we retain the potential for physiological response, just in case.
Today, we are more at risk from the stress of our complicated world of choices, stimulation and way too much information than from environmental factors. Probably the most hazardous situation we regularly face in normal life in our part of the world is traffic, hence the increasing incidences of road rage – a whole other topic worth exploring!!!
These newer perils of our modern day world leave us with a primitive survival mechanism that has not caught up with the realities we currently live with. So a problem like not being able to pay the bills at the end of the month sets off the nervous system to send a cascade of reactions: heart rate quickens, breathing gets shallow, blood rushes to arms and legs, muscles get tense, sweating, hearing and vision get acute.
Our mind begins to race in the absence of a tangible threat and we begin to imagine all kinds of future calamities and what we commonly refer to as anxiety becomes a familiar reaction.
This shows up in a continuum from mild apprehension to serious anxiety disorders, requiring psychological and/or medical interventions. Research points to the strong correlation between stress and health. Because our biology has a deeply embedded emergency system that is hard-wired, we need to learn more about what is happening in our bodies and brains.
The next step is to learn how to consciously shift our brains back to a calm state. Fortunately, human brains have evolved with a sophisticated capacity to do just that. Perhaps it would always be a good thing to have the emergency system that would kick us into survival mode but the ability to efficiently discern and moderate our responses allows us to come back to a sense of calm and clear thinking.
coming soon…..Anxiety Part 2: Physiological Process in the Brain and Body