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HOW DOES ANXIETY SPIRAL INTO A PANIC ATTACK?


What are the key factors that take you from mildly anxious to a full blown panic attack?

1. It all starts with hypervigilance to threat. This means we are constantly on the lookout for signs that we might not be safe. When we search, then we find something to trigger that threat response.


2. Some signs of anxiety arise and our attention zooms in on it. Focusing on the symptoms of anxiety can actually make them worse because anticipate it getting worse. We fear the fear. So the first sign of that pounding heart or shortness of breath becomes a source of fear itself.


3. Next comes desperate attempts to stop the anxiety and make it all go away. But when we are not willing to feel something, we definitely will. So then we feel out of control, which is another source of fear. Cue the increase in anxiety.


4. This final factor is key to triggering a panic attack. The catastrophic misinterpretation of the harmless symptoms as something dangerous. For example, my throat is tight, “I’m going to suffocate” or “my heart is pounding, I’m having a heart attack. I’m going to die”. Others might be based on psychological threats such as, “I will vomit or pass out and everyone will judge me. I will be humiliated”. None of these predictions are fact. They are thoughts we buy into that make us terrified and completely out of control.


When people engage in therapy for anxiety, something they learn is this: Thoughts are not facts. Instead, thoughts are predictions, opinions, ideas and judgments. They are filled with biases that affect how we perceive things. There are some specific patterns of thought bias that are especially common in anxiety. Here is a list of 3 thought biases to look out for and some tips on how to keep them under control.

HOW TO CHANGE ANXIETY-DRIVEN THOUGHTS?


OVER-GENERALISATION

Over-generalising is when we take one negative event and see it as typical and likely to happen again and again. For example, your last date didn’t go well so you vow never to date anyone again. This means that one bad experience can have a negative impact on all other areas of your life.


CATASTROPHISING

What is the worst that could happen? This is the express train that takes you straight to the worst case scenario. If I walk on that balcony, I will fall and die. If I go to the supermarket alone, I will have a panic attack, throw up, pass out and be judged by everyone. If I get on that plane…. You get the idea. We’ve all experienced this one. It is a guaranteed way to send your anxiety through the roof.


PERSONALISING

I wave at a friend across the street and she doesn’t wave back. Conclusion? She hates me. I must have said something to offend her. As a result I spend the week in turmoil, analysing everything I ever said to her and avoiding her in case there is a confrontation.

The reality could be that she was lost in thought, didn’t see me, was dealing with her own struggles. Who knows? There are endless potential theories that do not include me and all my inadequacy.


WHAT NOW?

Look out for these thought patterns popping up today. When you notice one, write it down. Label the thought as a catastrophizing, personalising or over-generalizing thought. The process of noticing a thought for what it is (a biased idea) rather than a fact can help you to detach from a thought, giving it less power over you. This enables you to consider alternative ideas.

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