Panic: How Seeking Safety Can Make Things Worse
If you’re a panic sufferer you will have one or more ways of coping with the situation. You’ll use these techniques as a way of saving yourself. You naturally want to prevent the situation worsening and you want to assert control and make things better.
Panic sufferers tend to hold beliefs that so far they’ve been lucky. They’ve come to the edge of the abyss but somehow have got away with it. They believe the strategies used help to prevent the worst from happening, yet the very precautions they take actually serve to make things worse. To illustrate the point here are a few examples:
Falling. A common fear with panic sufferers is they will collapse. In order to save themselves they begin to stiffen their legs and they look for something or someone to grab hold of. The reason this makes things worse is that stiffening leg muscles has a negative effect on balance and actually makes us feel wobblier.
Thought Control. ‘I must get a grip on myself – I need to fight this.’ The more you focus on something the bigger the issue becomes. The idea that your thinking can overcome your panic isn’t too far fetched but it’s the way you use the strategy that counts. Simply willing yourself not to get worse is feeding into the negative thought structure that is already part of the problem.
Fainting. A little like falling (see above) the sensation of dizziness that may accompany panic can convince the person they are about to faint. They save themselves by grabbing something, or they sit down and very often take a number of deep breaths in order to calm themselves. The reason this can make things worse is that taking in a series of deep breaths can make anyone feel light-headed and actually more breathless still. A better strategy is to take one long slow intake of air, hold it for a few seconds, then exhale slowly and push out more air than you feel you’ve drawn in. Then breathe normally.
Throat tightening. Some panic sufferers feel their throat is closing up. They fear it could lead to choking and they speculate as to the physical cause. They may save themselves from the situation worsening by swallowing or sipping fluids in order to keep the throat clear. This can make things worse because swallowing a lot ultimately leads to difficulties in swallowing and it reinforces the belief there is something wrong with the throat.
Going Crazy. This is a central fear of panic sufferers. It’s the belief that they are losing control and sometimes it is accompanied by a sensation of being outside of themselves. People will sometimes check their face in the mirror or touch or pinch themselves to ensure they are still there. The reason this can make things worse is that it increases the sense of self-doubt about what is and isn’t real. Like the other examples, the more you focus on a particular sensation the more it intensifies.