Mental Health Essentials: Understanding Panic Attacks


In this post, I’m going to explain some basic principles of panic attacks: what causes them, why they take such different forms, and what you can do to stop them.  Before I start, let me make it clear that I am specifically talking about panic that is brought on by psychological factors.  There are other things which can cause panic–things like drugs, demons, and certain physical health issues.  To treat panic correctly, you need to start by identifying its cause.  If your body is reacting badly to a drug you’re taking, then the solution would be to stop taking the drug, not clock a bunch of hours talking to a therapist.  If a demon is the source of your problems, then you’re dealing with a hostile third party who is manipulating your mind and/or body, and that’s a different scenario than what I’m talking about in this post. The kind of panic I’m going to be discussing is brought on by an overload of stress in your subconscious mind.  Most people don’t understand the difference between their subconscious and conscious, which is fine.  But when you start experiencing panic attacks or waves of anxiety that come over you all of a sudden, it’s time for you to get better educated about how your own mind works.  

I like to use metaphors to explain how the mind works, because metaphors are a great way to make complicated subjects easy to understand.  To understand how your mind operates in the day to day, let’s start with the metaphor of a house.  Picture yourself living in a one story home.  It’s a nice house–simple, small, and tidy.  Perhaps a bit too tidy.  You see, things are so pared down and sparse in your house that you frequently find yourself looking for things that you can’t find.  That scrap of paper with your friend’s new address–where did that go?  That photo album that contained pictures of your first pet–what happened to that?  It’s when you’re entertaining visitors during the day that you often find yourself rifling through drawers and closets to find something that you know you own.  So what’s going on here?  What’s happening to all of your stuff?  Well, this tidy little house of yours is giving a very false impression of how much you really own.  You see, the truth is that you’re quite the pack rat.  Underneath your sparse, one floor home, there is a massive, ten floor basement that reaches far underground.  Those ten floors are being used like ten massive warehouses and they are stuffed to the brim with everything you’ve ever owned.  You see, it’s simply not in your nature to throw things out.  Instead, you save absolutely everything.  That scrap of paper with your friend’s address and that photo album you want are both somewhere in that basement–it’s just a matter of finding them.  Happily, you have someone to do that for you: your butler, Malcolm.

Malcolm is a very efficient fellow, even if he is rather uptight.  It’s entirely thanks to Malcolm that you wake up every morning with your house neat, tidy, and pared down to just the essentials.  You see, you’re really not a very neat person.  In fact, you’re quite the little mess maker, and you just love to collect things.  When you go out for a stroll, you always come back with an armload of interesting things that you found on your walk.  When people come to visit you, they’re always bringing you gifts which you never say “no” to.  One time your mother brought you a very ugly painting of a cow in a field.  Another time your brother came by to dump an entire set of outdated encyclopedias on you. Since you never say “no” to anyone, and since your visitors are always dumping things on you, it doesn’t take long before you start feeling rather overwhelmed by all of the piles of junk.  Here’s where Malcolm is your saving grace.

When you go to bed at night, Malcolm sets to work cleaning up the mess that you’ve accumulated during the day.  He hauls all of those random items out of your living space and attempts to find new homes for them somewhere underground.  When you wake up each morning and see all of those intimidating piles magically gone, you feel relieved, refreshed, and ready to take on the day.  As you go about your business, whenever you need something that you can’t find, you simply summon Malcolm and he goes dashing down to the basement to fetch whatever you’re looking for.  Many of the piles that get formed during the day are made up of things that Malcolm has hauled up out of storage for you.  Then, each night, he takes everything back down again so that you can start fresh in the morning.  It might sound like a tedious process, but if Malcolm were to ever quit, you’d quickly find yourself immobilized by junk.

Now this metaphor I’ve just made up demonstrates how your mind operates in the day to day.  The conscious part of your mind is represented by that tidy, single story house which starts off each day in an organized state, then grows increasingly cluttered as you live your life.  Your subconscious is represented by those ten underground storage rooms.  Your subconscious mind contains data relating to every memory, skill, and experience you’ve ever had.  It’s all buried deep in those underground layers, but as is the case with most basement owners, you can’t list off most what is in your subconscious because you simply don’t remember.

Now just as you were constantly looking for things you couldn’t find in the metaphor, in real life, you are constantly finding yourself in situations where your conscious doesn’t contain all of the information you need.  If I were to ask you a question like, “What was the address of the first home you lived in?” or “What was your favorite outfit when you were a kid?” or “How many doors are in your current home?”, you’d find yourself having to pause and think a moment before you could locate the answer.  Why the need for the pause?  Because the information I’m asking for isn’t readily available in your conscious mind.  Instead, it’s stored in your subconscious.  Depending on how deeply it’s stored, you might not be able to locate it, at which point you’ll shrug and say, “I don’t know.”  You probably do know–deep in your subconscious–but your mind has limited energy and it isn’t going to put itself through a bunch of strain rifling through acres of memories just to answer my silly questions.

Ever try to search for a lost file on your computer only to give up because you grew impatient with how long the thing was taking to search through all of its drives?  This is often how your mind reacts to questions which it feels are unimportant.  If it can’t find the information quickly on its first attempt to rifle through its subconscious files, then it just abandons the search and decides to go on without that information.

The next time you’re signing up for some new website account and you are asked to choose what security questions you want to be asked to verify who you are when you log in, notice how some questions are easier for you to answer than others.  Your mind is a very clever thing, and when it notices that certain items are frequently getting pulled out of its subconscious storage, it rearranges things so that those items become easier to access.  Notice how you tend to choose the same kinds of security questions when you’re setting up accounts, and you avoid other kinds.  Why do you do this?  Well, perhaps you find it much easier to remember the name of your first pet than you do the name of your first grade teacher.  Both names are stored in your subconscious, but the pet name has come up often enough that your mind has made it easier to reach, whereas your first grade teacher’s name is buried so deep that digging it out is a hassle.  Naturally, you’re going to go for the easier task whenever there’s a choice, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, you’re being smart to conserve energy like this.

Now remember how in the metaphor Malcolm tidied up your house each night?  A similar process happens in your mind when you sleep.  Obviously you don’t have a manservant living in your brain, but your mind really does experience its conscious fill up with clutter as you absorb new information throughout your day.  When you sleep, your mind goes through a very important self-maintenance routine which is largely about filing new information away in your subconscious in a manner that makes sense.  Sleeping is essential to mental health, and you need more than some quick cat naps.  Your mind needs time to get itself reorganized and ready to absorb new experiences. It also needs time to work on any problems that it might be having with its subconscious storage.

Ever been in an overstuffed garage or storage unit trying to find that one thing that you need?  When you finally find it, of course it’s in a box that’s at the bottom of a high tower of boxes.  By the time you take down the tower and find what you need, you’re too tired to put everything back the way it was, so you just walk away and leave a big mess on the floor.  This same kind of scenario can happen to your mind when it’s called upon to dig up some data that is stored in its subconscious.  Sometimes in the process of digging out what it needs, a lot of other things are disturbed and left in a disorganized mess.  For example, when I ask you if you had a swimming pool at your house growing up, your mind quickly delves into your subconscious for those memory files.  But in the process of pulling up images of that swimming pool in your backyard, your mind also comes across images of your little cousin floating dead in that pool.  Your cousin accidentally drowned in your pool, and that is a very upsetting memory which your mind finds stressful to review, so it keeps it buried deep in storage.  But now, in an effort to answer my question, your mind has tripped over those very disturbing images.  Suddenly you feel emotionally upset, and you stay upset all day as those images of your cousin keep haunting you.  Your mind finds this a very agitating situation–it wants to get those upsetting memories tucked out of sight again.  When you go to sleep, your mind is going to set to work trying to rebury those memories of what happened to your cousin.  But depending on how upset it is, it might have a hard time getting those memories hidden away again.

Ever take something out of a crammed box, only to have trouble getting it back in again?  The thing was neatly taped shut when you first got into it, but now that you’ve dug around and messed up the order of the contents inside, you can’t get the box to close again.  This is often what happens to your mind when an upsetting memory is suddenly yanked out of storage.  Once the thing is out, it can refuse to go back where it belongs. Instead it keeps resisting your mind’s efforts to shove it out of sight again.  As your mind goes to battle with subconscious clutter, you experience a strange side effect: dreams.

Most dreams are simply the product of your mind rifling around in its subconscious storage rooms.  Every day you collect new life experiences, and those experiences result in data that has to be stored in your subconscious.  As your mind files away the new data, dreams are produced.  Your dreams will focus on the data that your mind finds the most difficult to file away–in other words, the stressful stuff.  Stressful experiences are like fat folders that your mind is trying to jam into an overstuffed file drawer–they just don’t want to go in.  All of that shoving and pushing that your mind goes through to get the darn folder to sit down enough so that the drawer will close is what produces dreams.  Dreams seem very strange and mysterious because they use a lot of creative, metaphorical imagery.  But despite how strange they can seem, dreams are just your mind talking to itself–muttering about how challenging certain files are to store away.

Ever have a closet that you’re afraid to open because you know when you do a bunch of stuff might fall down on your head?  This is how your mind feels when its subconscious becomes too cluttered with distressing material that can’t be packed away neatly.  Imagine a row of large metal file cabinets that all have oversized files sticking out of their drawers.  None of the drawers will close properly because they all contain files that are too large to fit in them.  This is the kind of situation that happens when you have a lot of highly stressful memories cluttering up your subconscious.  Because nothing is fitting anywhere, your mind is finding it impossible to go through its nightly reorganization process.  When you sleep and your mind rolls up its sleeves to start getting its subconscious files in some neat order, things are such a mess that your mind just can’t get anywhere productive.  It can’t do what it needs to do to file things away neatly and close those file cabinet drawers, because the stuff it’s trying to file away simply won’t fit in any of the available storage units.  This scenario is extremely frustrating for your mind, especially since every day it keeps getting a bunch of new data dumped on it that it has to file somewhere.   The longer you go with your subconscious storage cabinets being taken up with oversized files, the higher the stacks of incoming data become until soon your subconscious is like a garage so stuffed with towers of overstuffed, badly stacked boxes that you can’t even squeeze your body through it.  How would you feel walking into a garage like that?  What if you didn’t have the option of throwing anything out, and you kept getting sent back to that garage over and over to find things that you couldn’t possibly find?  How long would it take before you’d lose your cool and act out in some loud, violent way to vent your frustration?

Panic attacks are caused by your mind expressing its frustration with trying to carry on in the midst of extremely stressful circumstances.  Because your mind is a very hardy thing, it takes a lot to push it to the point of panic.  By the time you start experiencing panic attacks or the sudden onset of anxiety, there is a serious crisis happening which you need to address.  Panic is your mind’s way of saying, “STOP!  NO MORE!! I can’t keep operating under these conditions!!”  You need to respond to panic the way that you’d respond to the sound of a fire alarm going off and the smell of smoke in your home: drop everything and rush to figure out where the fire is so that you can put it out.  If instead you were to just ignore that shrieking alarm and all of that smoke, the fire is just going to grow out of control.  In the same way, if you keep ignoring your mind’s emergency signals, your mental health will only grow worse until you find yourself in a very severe crisis.  Since your mind is the computer that keeps your entire body running smoothly, you need to respect it.  If your mind is frantically signaling you that it’s feeling overwhelmed, those signals should never be fluffed off.

Now every mind has its own style, and this results in humans experiencing a wide variety of panic attacks.  For some, the attack is very emotional in nature. You’re heading into a cafe to meet with friends and suddenly you get hit with an overwhelming sense of fear that makes you want to turn around and run for your life, even though you can’t see any physical threat.  For other people, panic attacks are signaled by more physical symptoms.  One minute you’re doing fine.  Then your friend makes one comment to you and suddenly you feel like you’re about to vomit or your stomach twists into knots or your head starts to pound or your muscles start to shake uncontrollably.  For still other people, panic signals come paired with full on hallucinations.  You’re calmly walking down a street when a car suddenly backfires.  Suddenly you find yourself standing in the middle of a battlefield with ammunition exploding all around you.  You can see the field, the bodies, and the blood as clearly as you saw the city street a second before, and so you run to duck for cover behind that pile of sandbags in front of you, not realizing that those bags are really just a parked car.

Remember that panic is a result of your mind feeling overwhelmed by its inability to function well due to all of those oversized files jamming up your subconscious.  In cases of panic driven flashbacks, what you’re seeing is often a reconstruction of memories stored in one of those troublesome files.  Flashbacks often focus on what was the worst part of an upsetting experience for you.  Other times, flashbacks can be scary revisions of an actual experience.  For example, five years ago, Sharon was viciously attacked by a gorilla that escaped from its pen in a zoo.  Because Sharon has not processed that terrifying memory well, it is now acting like a thorn in her subconscious, causing constant mental agitation.  Five years after the attack, Sharon is having panic attacks in which she looks up and suddenly sees a huge gorilla barrelling towards her.  The hallucinations are not true reconstructions of her original experience–she doesn’t see herself suddenly standing back on zoo grounds, nor does the gorilla look exactly like the one that attacked her.  In Sharon’s case, her mind remains connected with its actual surroundings, it just inserts a gorilla into them–a gorilla that isn’t really there.  But because the gorilla looks very real to Sharon, she screams and takes off in a terrified sprint every time the beast appears.  After the hallucination stops, Sharon is in a terribly distraught emotional state which she can’t quickly recover from.  These panic attacks are creating major social problems for Sharon, especially since they’re growing worse.  It used to be that the gorilla would only appear when she was walking down a city street.  But now it’s starting to show up at the office where she works and she’s terrified that it’s going to show up in her house next.  She’s quit her job, she’s afraid to go outside, and she’s spending her days curled up in dread in a corner of her bedroom.

So what’s happening to Sharon?  Why are her hallucinations growing worse?  Because she’s not addressing the root cause.  You see, by the time panic is happening, your mind is in a true emergency.  It’s signaling you frantically, telling you that you must do something to address the problem.  If you don’t, things only deteriorate.

So now that Sharon is hugging her knees, rocking in a corner, and looking like she belongs in a mental home, does that mean she’s beyond hope?  Of course not. There is always hope, and panic can always be resolved.  So how do you resolve it?  Well, what would you do to get oversized files to fit into a file drawer?  You’d need to cut down those massive folders.  By trimming off the sections that don’t fit, you can get that file down to a size that you can work with–a size that can be easily tucked away into that drawer.  In treating psychological panic, the goal of therapy is for the counselor to help the client locate and trim down those troublesome files that are causing his mind so much stress.  No matter how oversized those folders are when they first get transferred in from the conscious, they can be adjusted to fit neatly into the subconscious’ storage units.

So how does a counselor help you shrink the size of overstuffed files?  By taking the terror out of them.  Sharon will always remember getting attacked by a gorilla, but a good counselor can help her get to the point where she can remember that event without reliving her initial terror of it.  Once Sharon gets those gorilla memories tamed, the hallucinations will stop, the waves of panic will stop, and she’ll be able to start living life again. She isn’t “crazy,” she’s just overwhelmed, and with good reason, too.

Now when your mind is dealing with a lot of different overstuffed files, you can experience panic attacks that aren’t as clear as Sharon’s were.  Because Sharon’s problems were being caused by one main traumatic life experience, and because of the way her mind chose to express its panic, it was pretty easy to pinpoint what the problem was.  But other times, things aren’t so clear.  Take Jack–the fellow who is hit with waves of terrible nausea whenever his cell phone rings.  Jack wants friends and a social life, but he is finding these things very hard to get or keep when  any kind of social engagement is causing him to feel the need to vomit.  Unlike Sharon, Jack doesn’t understand what is causing his panic attacks.  He can’t list off the contents of those overstuffed files. But Jack’s behavior is making it clear that those files do exist, and by talking with Jack, a good counselor can help him identify what specific issues are causing his mind to feel so overwhelmed.

The key point I want you to glean from this post is that panic attacks can be a serious sign of mental strain, but they can also be resolved.  You don’t have to settle for going through life dreading the sudden onset of terror.  Whether your panic attacks are hitting you during your waking hours or taking the form of recurring nightmares that jolt you awake when you’re trying to sleep, these things are just signs that your mind needs some extra attention and care.  Your mind is not an enemy that is out to get you, it’s an ally that you should be respecting.  It has limitations, and when it is pushed too hard for too long, it can temporarily malfunction.  But just as you can take your car in to a mechanic to get it running again, there is a lot you can do to help your mind recover from psychological exhaustion.


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