I can say from experience that panic attacks are terrifying.
They can involve:
-numbness in body parts
-inability to breathe
-pain in the chest (you might think you’re having a heart attack)
-pain in the stomach
Those are just a few symptoms. It’s not uncommon to feel like you’re dying.
At the other end of the spectrum (in terms of the nervous system), when in a fear state you might, instead of panic, fully dissociate.
You might feel like you are outside your body, just watching.
Or you might freeze, and feel unable to move, speak, respond, or react.
Why do we do this, and what does it mean?
Here’s what your nervous system is doing.
The nervous system response to trauma depends on how your vagus nerve reacts.
This is polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, which has shone a major new light of understanding on the workings of the traumatised body.
Basically, this nerve has three circuits.
One was developed in the body in the earlier days of our human evolution, and is referred to as the ‘reptilian circuit’ because it causes the body to ‘freeze’ or ‘dissociate’ when under threat, like a reptile would do.
The other circuit is the early Mammalian ‘fight or flight’ response.
The final one, and the most modern one, is the social engagement system.
Panic attacks are an activation of the vagus nerve into fight or flight, and it is simply the body’s response to perceived threat (it is in hypervigilance).
Freezing and dissociation are the body’s responses to the second vagus nerve circuit, the reptilian one.
Which vagus nerve activation happens to you really depends on the circumstance and this can relate to genetic factors (such as a family tendency to operate from one system or the other).
The main thing to know is which response you have is ‘out of your control.’
[So, for example, when a woman is criticized for not fighting back during a violent attack, it is unfair and ill informed, because in that case her reptilian system was very likely triggered and she simply froze!]
For now, it’s important to realize that all examples are perfectly normal reactions for an individual who has experienced trauma, and the resolution lies in helping the body to know it is safe and that there is no further threat (check out my free guide at the bottom of this blog, which goes into my holistic approach).
What to do
First, remind yourself that your body is behaving normally – nothing is wrong, it’s just doing what it does given YOUR circumstances/past events, etc.
Take a LONGER out breath than in-breath, at least 2-1.
The in-breath activates the sympathetic nervous system, and gets you ready to fight or flight, which you DON’T want.
Instead, you want to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘rest and restore’ system which calms you down, and that is triggered by exhalation.
So, breathe in to a count of 2, and breathe OUT to a count of 4. (Or in 4, out 8, etc.)
Now, first of all it can be difficult to get yourself OUT of this one on your own.
However, if you feel yourself pulling away, becoming still, withdrawing from your body and surrounds, you can start to take shorter, sharper breaths, as if you are panting.
This activates the sympathetic nervous system, waking up your body, bringing blood to your limbs, and it can enable you to then shift into the present moment.
At the same time, with your eyes wide open, look around you and notice all the ways in which you are safe, right now:
- You have a roof over your head/protection from the elements.
- You are not running from danger, no one is attacking.
- You have food and water if you need it.
- In the present moment, right here, right now, all is well.
If you can get to a place in which you can breathe in short sharp breaths and tell yourself in no uncertain terms that there is no danger now, you will shift out of freezing/dissociation.
However, this takes practice, so please be compassionate with yourself, and if possible, work with a practitioner 1-1 for support!
Want more support and guidance?
Get my free Guide: a 6 Step Roadmap for Healing, which includes an appendix of trauma symptoms. Opt out anytime!