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I am starting a new series of blogs about anxiety, panic attacks, and some ways to break free of the prison they can hold us in. In the next several weeks I will be addressing the signs and symptoms, root causes, and ways of addressing and overcoming anxiety and panic attacks.

Whether you refer to them as panic attacks or anxiety attacks, the symptoms are essentially the same. Maybe this sounds familiar: you start to feel a little anxious and then you start to worry about feeling anxious, which makes you a feel panicky, and you are afraid of the panic attack symptoms, which upsets you even more until you are afraid of worrying about how anxious your impending anxiety attack is making you until suddenly your heart is racing and you can hardly breathe as you feel like you are drowning in a cocktail of worry, fear, anxiety, and panic.

I’ve experienced this and I know how terrifying it can be.

Anxiety attacks are so overwhelming and terrifying that it can feel like a heart attack. This is one of the reasons why panic attacks are so terrifying. The reality is that panic attack symptoms won’t kill you. You are not dying, but in the moment it FEELS like you are and that is a very real feeling. It’s where a lot of the power of a panic attack comes from.

There are many things I do to help people overcome their panic attacks and I will get more into the specifics of those treatments in other blog posts. For now I want to talk more about what causes and perpetuates panic attacks.

Panic attacks are a combination of physical and emotional factors.

It is a bit of a “chicken or egg” situation when it comes to which is the primary trigger. It can be a physical sensation that makes a person anxious or a feeling that triggers the physical response.

If you have things that trigger panic attacks, like: social anxiety, illness anxiety, a phobia, or a specific person, place, or situation – then how it starts might be a bit different, but the physiological response is essentially the same.

Anxiety attacks are, in essence, a survival response to fear. Your body senses danger and prepares you for that danger by pushing you into fight or flight mode. The problem is, there is usually nothing life threatening to fight or run from. In fact, it is your own body that becomes the perceived danger and you can’t run from that or fight it. It’s a vicious cycle of a feeling of danger and a physical response to danger.

Physically, when your body senses danger, it goes into survival mode. This has a number of repercussions. Your brain dumps adrenaline and other stress hormones into your bloodstream and sends blood to your large muscle groups to prepare you to fight or flee. Panic attack symptoms can look a lot like this:

  • Tingling in your fingers, toes, lips and tongue
  • Light-headedness
  • Coldness/clamminess in your extremities
  • Fast, shallow breathing
  • Sweating
  • Muscle tension
  • Chest tightness/pain
  • Rapid heart beat/heart palpitations
  • Nausea/digestive problems
  • Flushed or pale skin color
  • Racing thoughts
  • A feeling of choking
  • A slowing of nonessential functions like digestion, fine motor movement, and critical thinking
  • A Hyper-focus on danger

Your body and brain do all of this in an effort to prioritize your survival above all else. The problem is that it spirals out of control.

If you suffer from panic attacks then you know how awful they can be. The good news is that you don’t have to be controlled by them. You can be free to live your life without feeling like a prisoner to your own body.

As stated previously – there are various strategies used for combating anxiety and panic attacks, and I will be going into more of those in later blogs. Mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises, grounding exercises, and self-care are a few things that can be helpful.

If you struggle with panic attacks and want to break free, I encourage you to reach out to someone and get help. Isn’t it time take control of your life? If you are ready to live without the looming threat of panic attacks, I would be happy to help you in your journey to freedom. Set up an appointment today.


Cole Johnson is a psychotherapist in Omaha and the owner of First Light Counseling. Check out Cole’s other posts HERE.