Panic attacks are usually brief, although the sufferer may feel that they last forever. From an emotional perspective, panic attack symptoms may include feelings of intense fear, an overwhelming sense of doom, being out of control, or a sense of unreality. The sufferer’s thoughts may race and jump about, without any logic or consistency.
Physical panic attack symptoms may include some or all of the following sensations:
Racing or pounding heart; palpitations
Difficulty breathing or tightness in the chest
Shallow, rapid breathing
A choking feeling
Severe trembling or shaking
A rapid pulse rate
A brief body temperature rise
Dizziness or light-headedness
Fear of losing control
Tingling or numbness in the extremities
A feeling of not being physically anchored.
A panic attack may leave the person feeling utterly exhausted afterward. This may be caused by the flood of adrenaline and other stress hormones released when the panic attack starts. These “fight or flight” hormones cause an enormous output of the body’s energy resources. When the attack is over, exhaustion ensues as the body tries to recover.
Many people who experience panic attack symptoms initially think they are having a heart attack. They may run to an emergency room or call an ambulance, only to be told no physical ailments have caused the intense feelings, sensations and other symptoms. Over time, the sufferer may feel as if he or she is losing his or her mind.
It is hard to overestimate the debilitating and widespread effects of these attacks. People who suffer from panic attacks often live in fear of the next attack, especially since they can be unpredictable. The attacks seem random and unwarranted and the sufferer worries they may have an attack when they are out among other people, or while driving or in other worrisome situations. Panic attack victims sometimes become reclusive or agoraphobic (afraid to leave their home); they may lose important relationships and friends. These types of coping skills arise because of the randomness of the panic attacks. The person having the panic attacks withdraws from social interaction because they fear being around other people when the panic attack starts. The fear of losing control in public and of not being able to stop the attack adds to the negative impact the panic attacks have on the person’s life.
Thus, we have the vicious circle aspect of panic attacks: the fear of panic attacks leads to anxiety about the possibility of a panic attack occurring randomly, which can lead to a full-blown panic attack. Often patients cannot lead normal lives and end up on disability, unable to maintain a job. The panic attacks and panic attack symptoms literally control their lives.
How can hypnosis help with panic attacks and panic attack symptoms? The key reason hypnosis can help with panic attacks is that fears, anxieties, and, in fact, all emotions, originate in the subconscious. The subconscious also controls involuntary physical functions, such as heart beat, respiration, etc. Hypnosis works in the realm of the subconscious. Therefore, the good news is that the subconscious mind can be retrained to reinterpret both fear responses and panic-inducing situations. There is a good chance that the person can use his mind to eventually free himself from panic attacks completely.
A hypnotherapist will usually take multiple approaches to working with a panic attack sufferer.* For example, the person may be taught physical and mental relaxation techniques (important for calming the racing heart and other physical panic attack symptoms), self-hypnosis, visualization, and guided imagery to use when he or she feels a panic attack approaching. The panic attack sufferer may be taught how to reinterpret sensations and feelings so that the early stages of the panic attack do not escalate and become “full-blown.”
Deep, focused breathing techniques may be taught by the hypnotherapist. Breathing techniques are a deceptively simple way to help panic attacks. Not only does focused deep breathing help distract the person’s mind from the fear, but it also has a powerful subconscious effect. We usually think of breathing as a totally automatic process. But when we bring our attention to our breathing, we can easily change the pace and depth of our breathing. This sends the subconscious a reassuring and powerful message: “You are in control. You can control this panic attack.” Further, deep breathing can help reverse the effects of shallow, rapid, panicked breathing. It can increase oxygen flow to the brain, which can help restore calm, logical thought processes.
Hypnosis techniques may also focus on reassuring the subconscious mind that it is safe to release the fear and/or anxiety. Panic attacks may arise from a part of the subconscious that believes it is keeping the person “safe” by sending them the message to panic. In other words, some part of the subconscious may think it senses danger or it may simply want the person to be alert to danger. So it sends messages to the person’s conscious mind regarding extreme fear, doom, etc. to insure that the person is “paying attention.” This part of the subconscious needs to feel reassured that the person has other ways of remaining safe, cautious, etc. Then it can be persuaded to release the fear response. To accomplish this goal, the hypnotherapist may use complementary therapies such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which is a form of “waking hypnosis” or “conversational hypnosis.”
Sometimes, a small amount of emotional relief can by given to the panic attack sufferer by simply explaining that his panic attack symptoms are not “crazy,” “insane,” or “irrational.” Instead, the symptoms seem “rational” from the perspective of that part of his subconscious that wants him to be alert to danger and ultimately safe. Once the person understands the problem at a deeper level he or she may begin to feel that he or she is not “going crazy.” This is one small step in the journey back to emotional wellness.
It should be emphasized that it may take multiple hypnosis sessions for the panic attack sufferer to feel some relief. Over time, he or she will begin to feel more in control and empowered to stop a panic attack and its accompanying symptoms before they become overwhelming and/or debilitating. Eventually, he or she may be able to completely eliminate panic attacks.
*Hypnosis is not a substitute for medical, pharmaceutical or mental health treatment of panic attacks. Rather, hypnosis provides a wonderful complement to standard “talk therapy” (psychotherapy, etc.) and medical/psychiatric approaches to panic attacks. Hypnosis works with doctors and mental health practitioners, not against them. Do not discontinue medical, pharmaceutical and/or mental health treatment for your panic attacks when you begin hypnotherapy.