RIDING THE RED RACER
Disarming a panic attack
Eric Van Fossen PA-C, CH
There is an amusement park here in Southwest Ohio that had an old wooden roller coaster. It was unique because it had two parallel tracks. The cars on one side were the “Red Racer” and the other track held the “Blue Racer” cars.
The key words and phrase in the above paragraph is that this was an OLD WOODEN ROLLER COASTER. This thing was rough, bumpy, loud, and shaky. I am pretty sure that many Chiropractors in the area put their children through college thanks to this one ride.
Because this is an old and bumpy ride that a lot of park goers avoid there is usually no line. One can usually finish the ride, go around back thru the turnstile and get right back on for another go around the track. I did this once; I rode that sucker over and over and over. I did not really enjoy it, but I did learn how to disarm a panic attack and other anxieties.
Always check with your medical provider if you think you are having a panic attacks or anxiety. All the other organic possibilities need to be ruled out first before hopping the turnstile for this ride.
So by the time I get to have this discussion with someone, they have experienced hundreds, if not thousands of panic attacks or other anxious moments. They have literally ridden that roller coaster over and over. Often they will have a “fear of the fear” that they experience during an attack. Many end up having a fear of the attack showing up at very inopportune times, like when they are driving, or at the store, or even at a party.
Sufferer’s need to first realize that although the panic attack might “start in their head” the actual physical symptoms are NOT in their head. The subconscious mind has incorrectly sensed a danger or fear. This in-turn activates the self-protective part of the physical brain which serves as a sentry. This sentry’s job is to protect us. Yes it is a sentry; but it is a stupid sentry. It doesn’t realize that the perceived danger is imagined so it sets off all the alarm bells along with a cascade of physical symptoms. These physical symptoms are a byproduct of our inherent fight or flight response that has helped keep us alive since the dawn of man. If there is danger, the brain causes physical changes in the body to enable us to fight or run. This is what causes the physical sensations of a panic attack. So the physical sensations one experiences during a panic attack are real. However, the threat which initiated them is not real. It is not “all in your head,” but it does start in your head.
So the sufferer has ridden this roller coaster hundreds of times. When I rode the Red Racer over and over it was a bit scary and thrilling and somewhat daunting - the first time. Every subsequent time I rode it, it became less scary and less thrilling. It actually ended becoming somewhat mundane. After a few trips around the track I had learned every twist, turn and bump. Eventually there was no fear and even the thrill was gone. I ended up dreading the bumps and the jostling, but at least I knew when to brace myself.
Repeated panic attacks are the same thing as riding the same roller coaster over and over and over. How many times do you have to ride that Red Racer before it becomes mundane and not fear driven? The sufferer knows every twist and turn of their panic attack. It is a personal thing and therefore can be personally controlled.
I ask sufferers to re-frame their panic attacks. From this point on, it is just a roller coaster ride which they have been on over and over. They know every twist and turn and they understand each element and what comes next. Even though it is a very crummy feeling, they need to remind themselves that they are not going to die. It is “just” a ride. So I have them walk themselves through the panic attack. Try to make it a game of understanding and prediction. It goes something like this:
Okay so first, as you know, comes that old familiar feeling of being anxious. You used to fear this sensation because it meant you might lose control. But now you have control. You understand this process and therefore you control it - it does not control you. You have been on this ride hundreds of times before and you know every twist and turn and bump. The first thing to do of course is to take the deep relaxing reset breath (This has been taught to them).
So what comes first after the anxious feelings? An increased heart-rate maybe? Go ahead and expect it and laugh to yourself when it shows up. You saw it coming. Right? See? You are in control!
Then what happens? Do you get a sense of chest heaviness or shortness of breath? Maybe it’s just the next turn on this roller coaster. If it arrives, chuckle to yourself and say, “Yep, there it is…right on time. I knew it was coming and here it is. But you know what? It’s not so bad this time. I was able to prepare myself for it and it was less of a bump than I expected!
This is all an old familiar feeling and old familiar feelings are just that. They are not fear… just feelings…old and familiar. I have ridden this ride…this Red Racer, a hundred times and it is becoming boring and mundane…I am becoming bored with this ride…I most likely will not want to ride it for very much longer.”
By re-framing the panic attack experience and learning to talk oneself through it, the sufferer gains control where once there was none. The stupid sentry of the brain seems to get just a little bit smarter- not setting off the alarm bells quite as often or as strongly. This process tends to remove the “fear of fear” element from future panic attacks as well.
Panic attacks need to be diagnosed by your medical provider.
Riding the Red Racer doesn’t have to be full of fear. You know what is coming and how to brace yourself. It may be a bumpy and uncomfortable ride, but look at it as “just” a ride.
Me? At my age I have sworn of roller coasters all together.