In the previous part of this series (if you missed the first instalment, you can find it here), we looked at one of the main reasons a person who suffers anxiety attacks becomes labelled with a resulting phobia. This week we’re going to look at why that person becomes phobic, when the cause is completely unrelated.
Let’s start by going back a bit to identify how the mind processes information…
Your mind is a huge library of your past experiences and the resulting smells, sights sounds, feelings and emotions.
It categorises these different events and experiences by linking certain aspect of them to each other in a sort of history chain. For instance a simple example would be that when you were a toddler, you probably touched a hot cup of tea, or a hot radiator, etc and the shock you felt would’ve imprinted on your mind that excessive heat is painful and should be avoided. The next time you approach something that gives off the same sensation of heat, your mind quickly takes you back to how you felt during the first encounter and you immediately move away from the source of further pain.
It does this using a process known as ‘anchoring’; at the peak of an emotion, the mind will select anything unique to the situation and anchor it to the cause of that emotion. ie “I am feeling intense pain, what unique thing was happening when I started to feel this pain?…. I was holding a hot cup…. therefore hot cups=pain”
In the future, still as a toddler, you will be reluctant to touch hot cups because your mind flies back to the original experience whenever you approach one and remind you of the pain you felt. If the pain wasn’t severe enough, it might take being burned a couple of times to lock it in place, but this is how humans and other animals learn to survive in the World.
So, how does this survival skill relate to the evolution of your panic based phobia?
Well, the steps always remain the same, so before you began suffering your original panic attack, your mind unconsciously linked something about the situation you were in at the time, to a situation you found yourself in in the past which caused you pain (physical, or emotional). It could’ve been something as simple as being pushed over in the park when you were a child, by the school bully.
This memory, which consciously you might not recall, causes the mind to remember that back then, you just wanted to run from the situation and the adrenal glands released copious amounts of adrenalin so that you get away. Alternatively, you just wanted to punch the bully and the adrenaline gave you the courage to do so.
In either case, the adrenaline solved the problem that day and your mind decided that this solution was necessary today, just in case the same thing happened again. It’s this burst of adrenaline that created the first panic attack.
As I mentioned in my last post, your heart begins to pump furiously, beads of ice-cold sweat run down your back, your throat dries out almost immediately and you find yourself thinking dreadful thoughts “… am I going to die”, “… my heart’s beating so fast it feels like it’s going to explode!”, “…I can’t catch my breath, calm down, calm down!… Oh my god, I think I’m going to faint!”
Your mind now does it’s job of setting up an anchor so that you’re protected in the future. At the peak of your fear, your mind looks around and says “what’s unique about this situation?” It sees that you’re in a park and links the cause of that fear to ‘Parks’. The next time you go into a park, unaware that your mind has set up this anchor, the adrenaline begins to flow again and you once again find yourself in the grip of a panic attack.
Again at the peak of the experience, your mind looks again for a unique scapegoat and sees that there’s people in the park and sets up another anchor for ‘people in parks’.
A few weeks later, you maybe driving to the seaside and everything is fine. You park the car by the beech and get out to walk along the promenade. Within seconds you become panic stricken! Why?
Well, unbeknown to you, over the last few weeks your mind’s set up two anchors… a) parks are dangerous and b) people in parks are dangerous.
While you’re walking toward the sea front, your mind has seen a build up of people which has started the search for occasions when this was a problem before and it sees the day in the park. Then it links the feelings you felt in the park to other areas when the same situation could occur and sees open spaces, which it then links to other types of open space and sees the beech.
Within seconds, your mind has gone from seeing people outside, to remembering the day in the park, to linking the feelings you felt that day to the situation you’re in now and before you know it you’re having a panic attack at the beech; yet another anchor for your mind to store.
This is how a one off experience you may have dealt with years ago, drives an issue that can blight your life forever more.
Agoraphobia is one of the most common symptoms cited by people who suffer from panic attacks and it’s all caused because your mind is trying too hard to protect you from danger.
In the next instalment, How to Control Panic Attacks, we’ll look at proven strategies to help you cope with panic and in most cases manage it to the point where it no longer controls your life.
Until next time…