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3 Good Ways of Responding To a Panic Attack

OBriensTower_EN-US194301618A panic attack ambushes the mind, the body, and the soul. Its targets are self-esteem, a balanced self-assessment and the ability to analyze situations and expected outcomes. When panic strikes, the present becomes a bleak landscape of dangers and the future includes a (seemingly) real possibility of annihilation. In the presence of a real (or perceived) significant stressor, one’s abilities to respond to the challenging situation becomes severely impaired. For the span of the panic attack, chest pains, shortness of breath, shaking, sweating, and even nausea and vomiting can give the sensations of impeding death. Can something be done to prepare for a panic attack with any degree of success?

One: Know Thyself

A first important tool is the ability to anticipate one’s own reactions, by getting to know them well enough so that they do not become stressors in themselves. Knowing the likelihood (and thus anticipating the possibility) of the physical sensations that go with feelings of panic (chest constriction, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and sweating) may help avoid the distress that these symptoms can cause. The very fact of knowing that these physiological reactions will take place, and allowing them to happen as a natural and understandable reaction to a threat to our well-being, can be beneficial.

Two: Know About Panic

Panic attacks are about as close to feeling imminent death as one can get, as anyone who has experienced them in all their severity will attest. A panic attack occurs without anyone else’s intervention (usually no one else is present). It can be extremely frightening even when no real physical danger exists (it can strike a person comfortably seated in his or her favorite recliner). A panic attack, by definition, occurs without any clinical danger of death and cannot by itself cause death or serious injury. A the most, when it reaches a certain level, a panic attack may trigger a loss of consciousness through hyperventilation (prolonged shallow breathing). This usually resolves the physical symptoms by momentarily taking the brain out of the picture, whereby the body can returns to homeostasis. When the person comes to, usually the panic attack is gone just as suddenly as it came. Exhaustion is not infrequent at this stage, as a panic attack can be a real workout for the heart and muscles.

Three: Manage Your Response

BearAttackA useful tool in preventing the recurrence of panic attack is stress management. Allowing the body to react, in concert with the mind, to a situation that may objectively warrant fear, sadness or worry is not only strategically sound, it is also physiologically healthier. Just as courage is not the absence of fear but simply good fear management, allowing a naturally-occurring biopsychic reaction to a stressor is simply good stress management.

Thus, the key to successful panic attack management is not in denying or attempting to prevent the stress reaction, but in what to do next (our chosen response). After the initial physical reaction ebbs and subsides and the heart rate naturally returns to near-normal levels, the real stress management response has a chance to begin. This response should first and foremost consist of addressing the stressor that is causing the panic attack to occur.

3 Good Ways of Addressing Serious Stressors

Three options usually exists in addressing significant stressors:

  1. Eliminating the stressor that caused the panic attack to occur.
  2. Removing oneself from the stressful situation, if option 1 is not available.
  3. Reducing the impact of the stressor through relaxation techniques or good coping mechanisms, when options 1 and 2 are not available.

Runaway Stress Attacks Financial Markets

High anxiety produced the equivalent of a panic attack in the world’s financial markets last Thursday. It was a day reminiscent of the high anxiety, high stress situation in the fall of 2008 when the markets lost almost half of their value in a few weeks.

On Thursday, from the Hang Seng to the Tadawul, from the DAX to Wall Street, fear gripped traders. On Wall Street, shares plunged by nearly 10% of their value and then regained it almost all back by closing time. Millions of dollars were lost and gained in minutes. Automatic halts on trading by computerized safeguards prevented a complete meltdown.

For at least “a discrete period” (i) of a few hours on Thursday, there was “a sudden onset of intense apprehension, fearfulness, or terror, often associated with feelings of impending doom.” (ii)

Among individual traders, “symptoms such as shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain or discomfort, choking or smothering sensations, and fear of ‘going crazy’ or losing control” (iii) appeared and disappeared throughout the day.

This appeared to be the type of panic attack that was “situationally bound (cued)… occurring on exposure to or in anticipation of the situational cue or trigger.” (iv) The situational cue on Thursday was a real or perceived threat to the world economy by the crisis of confidence in Greece’s ability to meet the obligations of its national debt.

When the panic attack was over on Friday, financial analysts and the rest of us were left to wonder if” “the increased global anxiety threatens to slow the recovery in the United States, where job growth has finally picked up after the deepest recession since the Great Depression.” And if “it could also inhibit consumer spending as stock portfolios shrink and loans are harder to come by.”

For anxiety, stress and panic attacks to be linked to allegedly rational financial evaluations and transactions is nothing new.

The notorious tug of war between quantitative economists and those who believe that financial decisions are to a large extent irrational, continues unabated.

An April 2010 NOVA special on PBS, Mind Over Money asked a very straightforward question: Can markets be rational when humans aren’t?

Thursday’s events would seem to indicate, once again, that mathematically-bound, high-intellect frontal lobe activities such as financial markets are vulnerable to sudden irrationality.

Just like the rest of us.

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