The familiar pounding in your chest, the tightness in your lungs – it can feel like you’re having a heart attack. What’s worse is you are afraid it could happen again at any moment. You feel hesitant going out, being social, even driving, for fear that you’ll have another attack.

As someone who takes pride in your work, who is used to pushing hard and getting a result, it’s common to feel shame about the anxiety attacks. You can wonder

  • Why is this panic attack happening?
  • Why won’t it go away?
  • What do I do when I have panic attacks?
  • Do other professionals experience this?

There are many people who experience panic just like you. It’s a common way our bodies react when anxiety flares up. Let’s talk about why panic attacks happen and how to shift your approach to help you grow.

Why you’re experiencing panic attacks: suppressing anxiety

Panic attacks happen when anxiety is “disregulated”. This means that the anxiety isn’t consciously seen or paid attention to. When this happens, the anxiety doesn’t have a backboard. It becomes louder and louder until it shows up in a strong physiological way: heavy breathing, tight chest, and the feeling like something is seriously wrong in our bodies.

Why is the anxiety not consciously paid attention to? For some of us, we don’t like to pay attention when we’re anxious. We might avoid feelings like disappointment, worry, and concern because they make us feel out of control. Sometimes our way of getting through those feelings is to “change the channel”. This is called affect suppression. When the feeling of anxiety comes up we don’t pay attention to it or wonder about it – we try to get it out of our heads. This can look like

  • Addictive behaviors
  • Fidgeting
  • Workaholism
  • Excessive phone use
  • Substance use
  • Sleeplessness
  • Avoiding silence

But the trick is, the less we pay attention to the anxiety, the louder it tends to get.

How to make panic attacks stop: seeing anxiety as a signal

For panic attacks to stop, we need to see anxiety as a signal, not a disease. Our anxiety is usually a signal that something doesn’t feel safe. It’s a sign that something needs attention, just like when a fire alarm goes off.

If your building’s fire alarm went off, you wouldn’t put in headphones right away. You’d turn, look, not for the alarm sound, but for the look and smell of smoke. In the same way, our panic attacks are not themselves the thing we need to “fix” or make go away. They are a signal that something is off in our lives. It may be a relationship, a re-emerging trauma, a life-transition, or work-related stressor that is no longer tolerable. Your mind is telling you that you’re unsafe and you need to pay attention.

What happens if we don’t pay attention to the anxiety signal?

If we don’t pay attention to the signal of anxiety, our panic will get worse. The more common panic attacks become, the more they lead to agoraphobia – the fear of leaving the house. You may feel this presently in your life. It’s the feeling of fearfulness and avoidance of any trips or engagements that take you away from home. The fear that you’ll have another panic attack keeps you close to home. People who have agoraphobia struggle to accomplish daily tasks and the world feels unsafe to them.

Additionally, if we don’t pay attention to anxiety, we continue to avoid and suppress it through addictive behaviors. It becomes hard to sleep, hard to rest, hard to concentrate. We depend more and more on substances like caffeine, alcohol, and other addictive substances. We avoid anything that will trigger an attack.

Most of all, when we don’t pay attention to anxiety, we diminish some of the most vibrant parts of ourselves.

There’s a different way to handle anxiety and panic attacks

We need to learn a new way to engage our anxiety if we want panic attacks to subside. For lawyers and other professionals, it can be hard to slow down and trust that doing so will actually move them forward faster than “changing the channel”.

It’s incredibly difficult.

Because listening to your anxiety requires a new voice inside: one that can be understanding and empathetic toward your experience. One that is soothing rather than critical. It can be difficult to trust that this small act is actually a fulcrum that will change the course of your life. Yet this is the work I engage in all the time with people just like you. One of the most powerful things you can do with your panic attack is give yourself a chance to listen to yourself. I can help you do that. Contact me today for a consultation.