The Anxiety-Panic Sequence (Part 2 of 3)
Fear and even panic are necessary to your survival but they can easily get away from you. Here are some tips for understanding and dealing with your fears before they manifest as a panic attack
By Quentin Steen, Representative
In our previous Monday Mental Health Moment, we looked at the first of two stages of what I referred to as the anxiety-panic sequence and the importance of knowing how our brains work and why. Knowing how our brain works can help you improve your sense of self-awareness when the normal feelings of anxiety may be getting away from you.
This first stage in this sequence is embedded in worry. The second stage is anxiety. The third stage is fear.
Fear is a feeling that’s associated with more precise danger. When our brain feels like it’s in danger, it begins to prepare our body to respond.
In these situations, our brain is designed to respond by engaging other survival tactics. This response is triggered by the most primal part of our brains, the amygdala, whose sole responsibility is to prepare our bodies to respond in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze.
This is our brain’s response to what it perceives to be a definite threat of danger or when it senses something unpleasant is about to happen. It’s a response by our amygdala based on something tangible or even something imagined (e.g., a future based what if, such as my neighbour contracted the virus; what if I get it too?).
TIP: One of the tools I’ve found helpful when a what if begins to invade my mind and ignite my amygdala is to breathe first. By controlling my breathing, I am able to control my thinking brain (the prefrontal cortex) to drill down into my fear(s). This forces me to face my fear(s) head on instead of running away from them, which can look like a lot of things—substance abuse being the biggie.
Once I’ve controlled my breathing and my thinking brain, I ask myself, then what? It may seem like a benign question, but it’s not. Asking myself then what? exposes the reality of where my fear feeds itself—my own sense of powerlessness and loss of control.
For example, what if this small lump on my neck is a tumour and not just a swollen gland? What if it is, then what? I don’t know what it is until I get it checked, so I’ll make an appointment with my family doctor today.
What if the test results are not positive, then what? Then I will have to deal with whatever it is with whatever resources are available to me.
What if the treatments don’t work, then what? Then I will deal with that with the support of my family and friends. That’s all I can do. For now, I’ll make the appointment and resist the urge to self-diagnose online.
The fourth and final stage of the anxiety-panic sequence is panic, which is essentially an extension of fear but in an extreme form. It’s like putting our body on red alert.
Panic is the result of feeling totally overwhelmed by the physical and mental feelings of our fear. It’s a response when we are faced with sudden life-threatening danger in the here and now.
Panic is vital in these situations because it puts our body instantly into the optimal state for survival, fully activating our fight, flee, or freeze responses.
TIP: Knowing what triggers your anxiety will help you deal with feelings of panic before they have the opportunity to manifest as a panic attack. Catching up with these thoughts before you get triggered is the key. This is where you need the help of appropriate medical professionals.
I know my triggers, and I can usually catch them before they get away from me. Part of the professional support I’ve received has helped me better understand why and how I get triggered, methods to manage my thoughts better, change the way I think, and respond and be kind to myself throughout the process.
As I’ve said, half the battle is knowing how your brain works and why it does what it does. The other half is to catch yourself when you are being triggered and to utilize the tools available to you to better manage yourself within the anxiety-panic sequence.
In our next Monday Mental Health Moment, we’ll look more closely at the panic attack and what that’s all about. In the meantime, here are three helpful resources to check out.
- The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmunds J. Bourne, a self-help book based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- Moodgym, an online self-help program designed to help users prevent and manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. It is like an interactive, online self-help book that teaches skills based on cognitive behaviour therapy.
- Free apps: Check out Mindshift (Apple App Store, Google Play) or Headspace (Apple App Store, Google Play).
Quentin Steen is a certified mental health first aid instructor for the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
Get your BRAIN right and your MIND will follow!
4 Mental Health Resources to Help You During the Pandemic
- Stronger Minds features videos and quick reads from mental health experts, activities to help you gain resilience, and ask-an-expert videos in response to questions.
- WellCan offers free well-being resources to help Canadians develop coping strategies and build resilience to help deal with uncertainty, mental health, and substance abuse concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Wellness Together Canada: Mental Health and Substance Use Support provides free online resources, tools, apps, and connections to trained volunteers and qualified mental health professionals.
- CLAC is also continuing to make available to all members and their families our employment and family assistance program. If you or your loved ones are struggling, please do not hesitate to reach out for help today.