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The fear of fear: Why we panic and what we can do about it

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

As lockdown measures start to ease, many of us are finding the emotional impact of the past few months has taken a toll which we may not recover from quite as quickly. Many of us have been dealing with heightened and sustained levels of stress and anxiety and, in those vulnerable to them, these uncomfortable feelings can lead to or increase panic attacks.

A panic attack is a sudden, unexpected and intense rush of anxiety that can be extremely frightening and overwhelming to experience. Most panic attacks tend to last between 5 and 20 minutes and usually peak within 10 minutes or less before the feelings of anxiety begin to subside. This rush of anxiety is accompanied by physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, a rapid heart beat and/or feeling dizzy.

These symptoms can be so intense that they lead you to think that you are going to die, have a heart attack, are going to faint or lose control of your mind, causing even more anxiety. In fact, it is this misinterpretation of physical symptoms that defines a panic attack i.e. when unpleasant or unusual physical symptoms in the body are interpreted as a sign of something dangerous and catastrophic happening, the level of anxiety and panic this creates is known as a panic attack. For example, when heart palpitations which are a normal sign of anxiety are interpreted as a sign of an impending heart attack, this understandably leads to overwhelming feelings of fear and panic.

As panic attacks are so unpleasant and distressing, many people feel anxious about the thought of having another one which can trigger more panic attacks. Fear of fear and a negative cycle ensues.

Recognising these unpleasant symptoms for what they are, and allowing yourself to experience them will help you to see for yourself that they are not harmful and dangerous, which will help to break this cycle of panic. This can be very difficult to do by yourself which is why the NICE guidelines recommend a short course of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to help you to break the cycle of panic.

Although, it may not help you to break the cycle of panic in the long-term, reminding yourself that the symptoms you are experiencing are not dangerous and developing some coping statements can help you deal with feelings of anxiety in the short-term e.g. “I am safe, this is just my anxiety”, “these feelings will pass”, “anxiety can't hurt me and “I have felt this way before and been fine afterwards”.

Taking slow, deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, making sure to exhale for longer than you inhale can also help to feel more relaxed in the moment. Next time you feel anxious, try focusing your attention away from yourself and towards your surroundings e.g. focusing on the person you are with or taking out your phone and sending a message. This can help you to see that your physical symptoms of anxiety come and go according to how anxious you feel, rather than being a sign of a real danger.

Having repeated panic attacks can make life very distressing and every-day tasks hard to deal with. If you find that you are avoiding places where you have had, or think that you might have, a panic attack and this is affecting your day-to-day life then you may benefit from seeking help. Your GP can help to rule out any underlying health concerns and refer you for a course of CBT within the NHS. Alternatively, you can visit the BABCP website at to find a therapist close to you.

If you are looking for support but don't have the time or money for therapy at the moment, I have put together an ebook that will guide you through exercises that can help you feel more calm and able to cope day-to-day through these difficult times. You can find a copy here:

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