Is “What if” maintaining your panic?

While engaging in therapy for anxiety, you will be invited to face your fears. The trouble is, you may have various additional fears that make this process challenging.┬áHere is a quick look at some common “what if” thoughts that maintain your experience of anxiety and a few suggestions on how to overcome them.

What if I go crazy or lose my mind?

Often, individuals worry that they will not be able to tolerate the experience of anxiety and that they will end up losing their minds or going crazy. The biggest fear is probably of developing schizophrenia, a mental disorder with a strong genetic link usually presenting in the early 20s. If you do not have hallucinations (hearing or seeing things others can’t) or delusions (falsely believing, for example, that spies are out to get you), you haven’t been diagnosed as such by your therapist, you are probably okay.

To counteract this worry, you can force yourself to think crazy thoughts, e.g. “I am receiving messages from outer space on how to rule the world.”

What if I lose control?

It is common to feel that you can’t control the physiological arousal that takes place during the fight/flight response. This is a correct assumption: this is an automatic response and you are never in control of it. You are, however, in control of your response to the signals your body is giving you. It is atypical for people to become paralyzed during panic, and similarly, panic does not impair driving (if anything, it makes you a safer, more careful driver).

To counteract this “What if”, wiggle your fingers or make your hands into fists to remind yourself that you are still in control. To prove to yourself that panic won’t impair your driving, move to the fast lane and drive the speed limit (as opposed to slowing down).

What if I have a heart attack?

Breathlessness and chest pain, two symptoms commonly related to a myocardial infarction (heart attack, a blockage in a major artery related to the heart), get worse the more you exercise and stop quickly while you are at rest. Panic attack symptoms, on the other hand, occur during exercise and also while at rest. Heart disease produces electrical changes to your heart, measurable by ECG. If you have had a normal ECG, you probably don’t have heart disease.

When experiencing panic symptoms, intentionally exercise to increase your heart rate and prove to yourself that your heart is still good.

What if I have a stroke?

A brain attack (stroke) refers to the blockage of a major artery to the brain. It can be assessed by neurological examination and MRI imaging. Panic attacks do not cause strokes.

To prove that you are still of sound mind, do some mathematics while experiencing panic.

What if I have a seizure?

A seizure is different to a panic attack in numerous ways:

  • EEG readings would pick up off, poorly timed signals if you are at risk of seizures. These signals are not present if you experience panic attacks.
  • During a seizure you could lose consciousness, but not during a panic attack.
  • There is often no memory of what happened during seizing, as opposed to the overwhelmingly clear memories that accompany a panic attack.

Purposefully move your legs or arms to prove to yourself that you are still conscious and not having a seizure.

What if I suffocate?

Suffocation can be caused by a blocked airway (e.g. choking on food), inhaling toxic gas, breathing water, having pneumonia, or lung disease. Panic attacks do not cause suffocation.

Since it is impossible to use your larynx to speak or shout while suffocating, whisper to remind yourself that you are having a panic attack, and not suffocating.

What if I faint?

Fainting happens when there is insufficient blood flow to the brain, typically because of low blood pressure. During a panic attack, your body goes into fight or flight mode which means that there is an increase in your blood pressure (the heart pumps harder and faster to carry blood in the body).

If you feel light headed during a panic attack, monitor your pulse rate: if it is strong, it means that what you are feeling is a result of anxiety, not a risk of fainting.

If you are struggling to overcome these anxious thoughts, please do book a session to come see me!