Utilizing Stoicism to Overcome Panic Attacks

Self Help

June 3, 2023

Utilizing Stoicism to Overcome Panic Attacks

We will dive deep into the intersection between ancient philosophy and modern physiology: using Stoic techniques to mitigate and manage panic attacks.

Panic attacks, characterized by sudden bouts of intense fear or discomfort, affect millions globally. They are commonly linked to panic disorder, but they may also occur in the context of other mental health conditions. In physiological terms, panic attacks can manifest through various symptoms, such as increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, and sensations of shortness of breath.

Stoicism, an ancient philosophy from Greece, may seem distant from our modern understanding of mental health. However, it offers practical techniques that align well with current therapeutic methods. Here, we'll explore three vital Stoic techniques and how they resonate with modern physiology, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) approaches to treating panic attacks.

** Book Recommendation: The Daily Stoic

1. Objective Representation

Objective representation, also known as 'impressions' or 'Phantasia' in Stoic philosophy, is a crucial technique to manage panic attacks. This concept asserts that our interpretation of events, not the events themselves, triggers our emotional responses.

This perspective provides a framework to control our reactions to external stimuli by adjusting our subjective interpretations. Reframing thoughts helps alleviate negative emotions and responses contributing to panic attacks.

Physiology of Panic: Let's look at how a panic attack works. Panic attacks often stem from the misinterpretation of bodily sensations or external events. For instance, when we experience an increased heart rate, we might interpret it as a sign of an impending heart attack rather than a natural response to stress or anxiety.

This misinterpretation can send a distress signal to the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions and fear responses. The amygdala, in turn, initiates a chain reaction that activates the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the 'fight-or-flight' response. This response results in physiological symptoms such as shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, sweating, and trembling.

** Book Recommendation: Discipline Is Destiny: The Power of Self-Control

Example in Practice: Imagine you're about to deliver a presentation. Your heart starts racing, your palms sweaty, and you suddenly feel breathless. An automatic thought might be, "I'm panicking, and I'm going to fail."

That is where objective representation comes into play. Instead of assigning a negative interpretation to these physical sensations, you can reframe them as a natural bodily response. "My body is preparing me for the presentation; these are signs of adrenaline, not panic."

The Science Behind Objective Representation: That aligns with the theory of cognitive appraisal, which states that our interpretation of an event determines our emotional response to the event. Research also shows how we interpret physical sensations can influence the intensity and duration of panic attacks.

Modern Therapy Techniques: In cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a similar technique known as cognitive restructuring is used. This technique encourages individuals to identify and challenge irrational thoughts and replace them with more rational ones. For instance, instead of thinking, "I'm having a heart attack," one might think, "This is anxiety, not a heart attack. I'm safe."

In sum, objective representation encourages us to interpret our bodily sensations and external events more accurately and objectively. This Stoic technique aligns well with modern cognitive-behavioral therapy approaches and helps mitigate the symptoms of panic attacks by reshaping our fearful thoughts.

2. Practicing Dispassionate Judgment

The practice of dispassionate judgment is a cornerstone of Stoic philosophy. It advises separating what's within our control from what's not and putting energy into what we can change: our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This mindset can be especially beneficial for managing panic attacks.

Understanding Panic: The fear of the attack itself primarily characterizes panic attacks. Anticipatory anxiety, or fear of a future panic attack, often aggravates the panic disorder. However, the onset of panic attacks is largely beyond our control.

Applying Dispassionate Judgment: Stoicism helps to shift focus from uncontrollable aspects (panic attacks) to controllable ones (our reactions to panic attacks). For instance, while preventing a panic attack may not be possible, you can control how you respond to the physical sensations it brings. Instead of spiraling into fear and worry, you can acknowledge these symptoms as temporary and harmless.

Example in Practice: If you feel your heart racing during a panic attack, you might instinctively think, "Something is seriously wrong." This thought can intensify your panic. Practicing dispassionate judgment, you could instead think, "My heart is racing because I'm anxious, not because I'm in danger. That will pass."

The Science Behind Dispassionate Judgment: Focusing on what's within our control aligns with psychological concepts such as the 'locus of control.' That is the degree to which people believe they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control.

Research shows that having an internal locus of control – believing you can influence your life events – leads to better coping skills, resilience, and overall mental health. By focusing on what we can control during a panic attack, we can limit the intensity of the attack and, over time, reduce the fear associated with it.

Modern Therapy Techniques: The practice of dispassionate judgment is reflected in exposure therapies used in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Through repeated exposure to panic-inducing sensations in a safe and controlled environment, patients learn to separate the fear of panic attacks from the attacks themselves. That helps them respond more calmly when they experience these sensations in real life.

Likewise, mindfulness-based therapies teach individuals to observe their feelings and bodily sensations without judgment. This dispassionate observation helps individuals respond to their panic symptoms more rationally and less fearfully.

The Stoic practice of dispassionate judgment encourages us to focus our energy on what we can control: our reactions to panic attacks. This approach is echoed in modern therapies, aiding individuals in managing their panic attacks more effectively.

3. Preparation and Visualization

Preparation and visualization, critical components of Stoic philosophy, are rooted in the concept known as 'premeditation Malorum or the premeditation of evils. This practice encourages individuals to mentally rehearse challenging situations to reduce anxiety and fear associated with such events.

Understanding Panic: The fear of experiencing a panic attack, particularly in public or unfamiliar places, can lead to avoidance behaviors and limit one's life severely. Here's where visualization is crucial in managing and reducing panic attacks.

Applying Preparation and Visualization: The Stoics suggest regularly visualizing challenging situations, like experiencing a panic attack, to reduce the shock and fear of the actual event. This mental rehearsal can help familiarize you with the physical sensations and psychological distress associated with a panic attack so that it's less frightening when it happens.

Example in Practice: You could visualize being in a crowded place, like a supermarket, and experiencing a panic attack. Visualize the physical sensations (increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating) and mental responses (feelings of fear, desire to escape). Rather than resisting these feelings, imagine accepting and allowing them to pass.

** Book Recommendation: Ego Is the Enemy

The Science Behind Preparation and Visualization: Visualization stimulates the same neural networks in our brains that actual behavior does. Regular visualization can condition the brain to respond more calmly in real-life situations. This concept is supported by neuroscience research showing that mental rehearsal can enhance performance and confidence in various fields, from sports to public speaking.

Modern Therapy Techniques: This Stoic concept is similar to 'interoceptive exposure' in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This technique safely induces physical sensations associated with panic in a controlled environment. Over time, individuals become accustomed to these sensations, making them less frightening in real-life situations.

Additionally, visualization techniques are widely used in different therapeutic approaches like guided imagery therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). They help individuals create a mental image of a safe place, which can help them feel more calm and relaxed.

The Stoic practice of preparation and visualization equips us with the tools to anticipate and better manage panic attacks. This ancient wisdom is reflected in modern therapies, enhancing our understanding and control over panic attacks and ultimately improving our overall mental health.

In conclusion, Stoicism, an ancient philosophy, can be seen in a new light as it resonates with many aspects of modern physiology and therapy techniques used to treat panic attacks. It encourages us to reshape our perceptions,

focus on what's within our control, and mentally prepare for challenges.

Of course, if you're suffering from panic attacks, seek professional help from a mental health expert. Stoic principles can complement your treatment, but they're not meant to replace professional medical advice. It's also essential to remember that overcoming panic attacks takes time and patience, and you can manage and ultimately overcome these challenges with the right strategies and support.

(Disclaimer: This article provides general information and discusses health and related subjects. The information and other content in this article or any linked materials are not intended. They should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you or any other person has a medical concern, consult your health care provider or seek other professional medical treatment.)

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