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Panic Attacks - The Feeling of Drowning in Your Own Brain

An Electrical Overload:

A panic attack can occur when a region of the brain becomes overloaded with electricity. The neurons become so over-activated that the brain region fails to function. You can think of a panic attack in the brain as being similar to a spasm in a muscle. When a brain region experiences an electrical overload, brain function fails and you lose control, your heart pounds to deliver the blood flow needed for the over active neurons, you feel like you can't get enough air due to the increased heart rate and need for oxygenated blood. You feel like your'e drowning in your own brain and no one can help. A panic attack usually lasts between 5-20 minutes and may vary in intensity and duration.

The Brain's Breaker Switch

A panic attack in the brain is like the breaker switch being tripped on your house. It occurs when there is too much electricity and the wiring is overloaded. The breaker switch is there to protect your house and shut down electrical function before an electrical fire occurs. In the same way, a panic attack shuts down your brain function before damage can occur, such as a seizure.

Identifying The Underlying Cause

An EEG brain map records your brain activity much like an EKG records your heart activity. An EEG brain map can identify regions of the brain that are over-activated, where neurons are firing off non-stop. These regions, while at rest, are typically producing just barely under the amount of electricity that would trigger a panic attack. Then, when additional stress comes along, the region is activated too much, and the panic attack is triggered. The best way to address a panic attack is to lower the resting state electricity to a normal level so that you can handle a tremendous amount of stress without ever reaching the threshold of triggering a panic attack. An EEG brain map can is the first place to start.

Signs of a Panic Attack

Even though a lot of what someone experiences may be internal and invisible to an observer, there are some physical signs to look out for.

  • They've suddenly become distant and quiet: It may be hard for them to communicate with others because they’re too focused on the sensations they’re experiencing.

  • They seem hot and flustered: Panic attacks may cause a person to begin to sweat or feel uncomfortably hot. You may notice that their face is flushed or that they look nauseous.

  • Their breathing has changed: Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, or chest pain are all possible symptoms. As they attempt to regain their breath, they may get dizzy, lightheaded, and, in some cases, they may even faint.

  • They are shaking: Some people may feel cold rather than hot, and this can cause them to get chills and begin to shiver.

What to Do

It can be really difficult when someone you care about is experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, but, fortunately, there are some things you can do to help. You can:

  • Remain calm: This one’s important because if they see that you're also panicking, it could potentially make things worse.

  • Guide their breathing: Have them inhale slowly, completely filling their lungs, then exhale slowly, completely emptying their lungs. You can even do this breathing exercise with them to help them feel supported and less alone.

  • Remind them it'll be over soon: This will help them direct their focus to the fact that their panic attack is temporary and that they will be okay.

  • Use grounding techniques: Give them a lemon or sour candy and have them focus on the taste. You can also hand them something cold, like ice cubes, or have them run cold water over their wrists.

Ask them what you can do to help them: If they can't answer you in that moment, that’s okay. You can try to have a conversation with them once the panic attack has passed to see what would be helpful so that you're prepared should this happen again.

What Not to Do

If someone is having a panic attack, do not:

  • Tell them they have no reason to be nervous: Even if they are not in any real danger, they still may not be able to stop the attack from running its course. Reinforcing that the person's fear is unfounded can increase one's sense of anxiety.

  • Tell them to calm down: If told to calm down, they may feel as though you are suggesting that they have complete control over their symptoms. If a person could simply calm down and stop having a panic attack, they would.

  • Tell them they are overreacting: It’s hard enough to have to deal with uncomfortable symptoms and it makes the whole ordeal even more challenging when others are minimizing their experience.

  • Shame them for their feelings: Many people already feel embarrassed about having to manage a panic attack in public, so there is no need to bring this to the person's awareness. Instead of saying or doing something to cause them to feel like you’re shaming them, try affirming their strength.

  • Get them to breathe into a paper bag: You might have seen on TV that people having panic attacks should breathe into a paper bag. This is no longer considered the best practice because they end up breathing in carbon dioxide, which could cause them to pass out.

Neurofeedback & Panic Attacks

From a neuroscience perspective, a panic attack is a symptom due to a dysfunction in the brain’s electrical activity. This is why it is imperative to start with functional brain imaging (EEG brain mapping) to identify the specific regions of the brain that are failing when additional stress occurs.

At the Brain Performance Center we use EEG brain mapping to objectively measure brainwave function. An EEG brain map can identify electrical dysfunctions in the brain that are often the root cause of panic attacks. Once we know what physiology is causing the panic attack, we can personalize nutritional, behavioral and neurofeedback interventions to return the brain activity to a normal state.

Neurofeedback brain training is a non-invasive, highly effective, non-pharmaceutical way to normalize the brain activity at the root of anxiety and panic attacks. It is a powerful form of biofeedback, using EEG sensors on your scalp connected to sophisticated audio/visual feedback exercises. Your brain actually controls the exercises on a video screen. Neurofeedback can accurately target a specific brain region and retrain brainwave dysfunction back to its normal state. It’s like physical therapy for the brain.

Contact the Brain Performance Center for more information about EEG brain mapping and Neurofeedback brain training for anxiety, ADHD, depression, insomnia and more. Training can be done at one of our three centers in Southern California or in your home with our state-of-the-art remote neurofeedback equipment rental program. For more information, please visit us at Email us at or call us at 800-385-0710.


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