Panic attacks & anticipatory anxiety

I had my first panic attack when I was in my late teens. The experience was very different from any other type of fear I had experienced before. I did not even know it was a panic attack. The only thing I knew was that I was sensing unpleasant and alarming sensations in my body and that my mind seemed to go crazy. Was I sick? Was it ever going to stop? Was I in fact going crazy?

This panic attack took me by surprise. It came so suddenly and was so extremely unpleasant, that a new fear was created in me. The fear of experiencing another panic attack in the future. Anxiety created by the thought of negative future scenarios is called anticipatory anxiety.

This anticipatory anxiety easily turned my situation into a vicious circle. The fear of getting another panic attack in the future triggered sensations in my body that I associated with the first stage of a panic attack like tension, shallow breathing, sweating, etc. (for more physical sensations associated to panic attacks read this article).

My mind interpreted these physical sensations as a sign that, yes indeed, another panic attack was on the verge. And so, the fear got stronger and stronger, until it would often blow up in a full and powerful panic attack.

Some people start to link the likelihood of getting a panic attack to certain places, situations or interactions, leading to avoidance behavior. In my situation, I linked the probability of having a panic attack to the absence of my boyfriend, to dusk, to scary sounds and closed spaces. I started avoiding these situations, so I would not be confronted with another panic attack. However, by avoiding these situations, my fear and overall anxiety were only growing.

The self-fulfilling prophecy of anticipatory anxiety leading to panic attacks can make us feel out of control. Once we become aware of this vicious circle, it can feel like an impossible task to step out of it, but it is exactly this which needs to happen.

Through the practice of stepping out of the vicious circle I managed to leave a phase of many panic attacks, anxiety and depression behind me. I have done this practice on a daily basis, and am still practicing. It is especially beneficial to practice in less difficult, daily situations, as this will help to apply the practice in more challenging situations like a panic attack.

Other articles will be fully dedicated to the practical side and details of stepping out of a vicious circle:

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