A person panics when they feel threatened by the situation It could be a perception of threat on any level – physical, emotional or mental. I say perception because when a person is faced with an unsafe situation – images of danger that pass through their mind can be based on one’s own previous experiences or the hearsay experiences of others. This memory makes one feel unsafe. According to psychological theory the normal human tendency when faced with unsafe situation is either fight or flight. These impulses are controlled by the hypothalamus, more specifically the autonomous nervous system which governs the involuntary functioning of the body during a stressful or threatening situation the sympathetic nervous system reacts by increasing the heartrate, dilating the pupil and giving the pituitary gland the order to secrete more adrenaline, leading to a sudden rush of bodily activity. One feels breathless, feels the heart beating faster and starts sweating.
For any protective activity to be performed in a threatening situation, a certain threshold of nervous activity must be present. This is a normal reaction. Once that threshold is achieved the body and mind go into reactionary mode and performs activities that eliminates the threat and return balance to the mind and body. The superior intelligence of human beings allows the cumulation of experiences and perceptions to create stress. It could be a thought, (or what is called in Cognitive behavior therapy an automatic thought), memory or anticipation of a difficult situation based on experience/memories.
Once rational thought takes over, homeostasis is achieved, and the stress levels dissipate. However, when people have panic attacks, rational thought is overcome by irrational or automatic thoughts that rapidly spiral out of control. Continuous practice of Meditation and Yoga as well as certain principles of CBT can be used to establish control of thoughts and return to a state of calm.
How Meditation works to contain panic
Meditation is the practice of trying to stay in the moment by focusing on breath or one’s surroundings, music playing in the background or a mantra. When one is able to stay in the moment , one can stop the thoughts from spiraling out of control and imagining scary situations which cause panic. Let us take the example of the lost phone. The thoughts that occur could be –
Someone has stolen it
Who could it be
I have to replace my phone and that costs money
What about the shopping aps, or my bank ap? Someone is going to log into it and spend a lot of money which I cannot afford
My parents will never let me forget this
I will never get another phone
My life will be over without a phone
I am so useless, I cannot even hold on to a phone.
These thoughts come rushing tumbling over one another until the body and mind freeze not knowing what action to take next or taking the wrong action like accusing people of having taken your phone.
We all go through situations when we have automatic thoughts. Some common examples are
– If there is a traffic back up, thoughts run through the head are I am going to be late, My boss will be angry, I will miss that promotion, maybe I should quit leading up to a despondent state of mind.
– Or If a friend does not answer the phone or message- maybe I said something to anger her , she is not going to talk to me anymore, our friendship is over etc. Most of the time people are able to break the train of thought and rationalize the sitation. However people with psychological distress are unable to halt the train of though and end up panicking or getting distressed.
When the thoughts start spiraling out of control, there is a need for the individual to get a grip on their thoughts so that they don’t reach the panic situation. The yogic practice of Deep breathing helps to calm the mind. We have often heard people advise those who are angry or upset to take a few deep breaths. A few minutes of this would calm the tumultuous mind. A little calm will return the body to some semblance of balance and one can start thinking about where you used the phone last, what are the possibilities of misplacement and can you get someone to call the phone, so it can be located and ask the people around you if the had seen the phone. Practice of Yogic breathing long term helps to maintain a more stable and calmer frame of mind that recognizes panic and immediately sets into motion the “calming process”
Once the physiological calm is achieved by taking a few deep breaths, one could also use the principal of recognizing automatic thoughts that cause emotional states that trigger irrational thinking.