What’s the difference between a panic attack and a bungee jump? Nothing, say our experts. GP and Mental Health Specialist Dr Harry Barry and Psychotherapist Enda Murphy joined Sean O’Rourke to talk about one of our most common mental health difficulties. Harry described the physical symptoms of the attack.
“I suddenly find my heart pounding, I’m shaking, I’m sweating, my stomach is in knots, my mouth is dry, my muscles are all tense, maybe I feel my throat closing in, and I’ve this most incredible sense of dread, something awful is going to happen. Of course, for the person who has never experienced this in their life, this is one of the most frightening things that can happen, because your natural assumption is, oh my God, this must be something serious.”
To go back to the bungee jump, Enda explains,
“They’re both adrenaline reactions. One, the person sees it as a real high that they want to go. The other person who’s having a panic attack sees that as an actual danger, but they are exactly the same thing.”
A panic attack typically lasts 5 to 8 minutes, both experts agree, and in and of itself, isn’t harmful. The problems arise when people start reacting to the symptoms and fearing that something dangerous is happening to them. Harry and Enda explained that the panic attack involves the amygdala area of our brain sending signals to our adrenal glands to prepare us to run away from danger. When we view the associated symptoms as dangerous, we become more frightened and the adrenal response continues to fire unnecessarily, prolonging the experience of the attack for anything up to and beyond an hour. Enda explains that the only way out of it is through it and the more peacefully we can do that, the quicker it will end.
“The amygdala is there to trigger the adrenal reaction, to get you up the nearest tree and then you’re supposed to look back and see was that actually a lion that was chasing me. What happens in a panic attack is that people don’t know to look back… By allowing the feelings to wash over you like a wave… you will retrain your brain to stop attaching danger to the symptoms themselves.”
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