Can you imagine what it must be like to have a panic attack in front of 5 million people? Well that’s exactly what happened to news anchor Dan Harris on live television on ABC News. (You can watch the clip at the bottom of this article). His healing journey led him to write his book “10% happier” in which he reveals how the most important solution for him, was to learn to exercise his brain through meditation.
I was delighted to see such a high profile figure present the research and evidence to support what I teach in my 8 week Anxiety & Stress Relief Program.
To help you understand panic and to appreciate how and why meditation helps, let me explain to you how your brain functions.
There are three major parts to your brain:
The first is the pre-frontal cortex located right behind your forehead. This is the part that is in charge of abstract thinking, thought analysis and makes rational, logical, common sense decisions. It is responsible for sorting out your different thoughts, regulating behavior and making choices between right and wrong. It also has the capacity to make decisions about how to manage your feelings. It’s the part that is able to talk to your self in a way that is soothing, comforting and helpful and tell yourself words like, “It’s going to be ok, I can manage this, it will soon pass”. Its function is to help you regulate your emotions and make sense of your experiences.
Then there is the limbic system. This is the part that is often referred to as your emotional brain. It’s where memories of all your past experiences that produced positive and negative feelings are stored. This part is your storehouse of emotions and a small piece within the limbic system is called the Amygdala. The Amygdala is the part that gets fired up in a panic attack.
Finally there is the primitive brain also referred to as the reptilian brain because it’s the oldest part of our brain that has been present since our reptilian days. It is involved with reflexive and instinctive behaviour such as feeding, heart rate, breathing and the fight or flight response. This part doesn’t really think – it reacts. When a car is coming your way, you don’t even have time to feel the fear, you see danger, you run. The fear actually sets in later, when your mind starts going over all the possible things that ‘could have’ happened. But in the moment there is only adrenalin. The primitive brain responds to the Amygdala when it gets triggered.
When Panic Attacks
Here is what happens when panic attacks.
1 First the Amygdala in the limbic system gets triggered. Emotions suddenly are activated.
2 This in turn activates the primitive brain. You then get all kinds of physical symptoms like your legs shaking, your stomach feels nauseous, you need to go to the bathroom.
3 Because you are unable to make sense of your experience, as there doesn’t seem to be any legitimate or justifiable causes for these sensations, your fear and worry escalates. The most common conclusions are: “I must be having a heart attack, I’m dying or I’m going crazy and I have to get out of here and reach a safe place”.
4 The more you rehearse those thoughts, the more the fear escalates in your limbic system.
5 That’s when the primitive brain kicks in with the fight or flight response and this is when panic takes over. The interesting thing is that the primitive brain does not distinguish between actual threat and perceived threat. In other words, it will react whether there is actually real danger coming your way or if you just keep telling yourself there is danger about to happen. In those moments of high panic, your prefrontal cortex basically ‘goes offline’. It’s not able to come to your rescue, to soothe and comfort you.
So from your brain’s perspective, in a panic attack your limbic system is fired up out of control, while your pre-frontal cortex is disengaged and unproductive, and your primitive brain reacts like there is an emergency.
The fact is however, that if you experienced all these physical symptoms at a time when you were all alone in the middle of the night and thought a burglar was in your house, you wouldn’t be afraid of your bodily reactions. You wouldn’t question these bodily reactions and they would not scare you.
But because in moments of panic you can’t see the cause of your symptoms, you go to the worst possible conclusion, and those negative thoughts are what escalate your experience into full-blown panic. All this happens in a millisecond.
But the question remains, what triggers your limbic system? Although in Dan Harris’s story he says it was because he took drugs, many of my clients who have panic attacks have never taken recreational drugs.
When Panic Attacks
As Dan explains a little more candidly later in the video, our emotions, in particular, our negative emotions, are actually always associated with some thoughts, voice, or story that runs in our mind. Many of those voices are below our level of awareness and roam in our subconscious. These are the self-defeating, catastrophic and fear- based thoughts that trigger the Amygdala and can set off a panic attack.
So what we need above all else when panic attacks is to re-engage the pre-frontal cortex with thoughts that are helpful, comforting and logical. How do we do that?
For Dan Harris one of the most important things he could do was to learn to train his brain through meditation.
An overwhelming body of evidence has now shown that learning to become more mindful and more present is the best cure for panic.
Even more exciting, is that brain analysis has revealed that those who have a regular meditation practice increase the density of their grey matter in the pre-frontal cortex and decrease the level of activity in the limbic system. That means that there is hard core, concrete, scientific evidence that meditation changes your brain in positive ways.
If you want to find out what triggers your panic attacks and learn tools to control and eliminate negative thoughts, then consider my 8 week Anxiety & Stress Relief Program.
Alternatively, you our Direct Neurofeedback treatment helps you calm the fight or flight part of your brain in a way that months or years of meditation practice can achieve.
Ask us if Direct Neurofeedback is right for you!
Watch Dan Harris having a panic attack live on ABC news here:
Claire Maisonneuve, MA.
Registered Clinical Counsellor
Director of the Alpine Clinic