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Thursday, 05 September 2013 00:00

Written by Guy SInes

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Anyone who has suffered chronic panic attacks knows how futile, helpless and permanent your situation can feel. This is of course exacerbated by the failure of others to understand your predicament.  

Accusations, feelings and diagnosis of hypochondria, as well as a myriad of other blanket terms which often assign blame and/or ridicule to the sufferer, only add insult to injury. As negative self-talk and poor self-worth are common denominators in this condition, friends, family members and members of the medical establishment who contribute to this thought process even inadvertently can add to your suffering indefinitely.

The symptoms of a panic attack or prolonged stress are all too familiar to those of us who have experienced this condition: Tightening of the chest, numbness in the extremities, shortness of breath, tunnel or blurred vision, dizziness and disorientation as well as an almost "out-of-body" experience are all hallmarks of a panic attack. They are also symptoms of a number of medical conditions, which causes the sufferer to think they are experiencing a medical emergency. This of course will only elevate your level of anxiety. Many of us have made multiple runs to the emergency room during these attacks, only to be told, often condescendingly, that there's nothing wrong with us. This is often reassuring information at the time, but it quickly becomes expensive and is only a temporary fix. Unless you deal with your condition at its root, your panic attacks will be chronic, and you will continue in this cycle.

But there's good news! You're not dying and you're not going crazy, even though this condition can make you feel as though you are. And, going against established mainstream medical opinion, I even refuse to think of this condition as a disorder, and certainly not as mental illness. Unfortunately, this is how it is most often treated. The patient is given a mental health diagnosis and prescribed various psychotropic drugs, such as antidepressants, sedatives and tranquilizers.

It is important to understand that the symptoms that one experiences during a panic attack are a natural and normal physiological response to stressors. They are most certainly NOT a disorder of the brain. I submit instead that they are symptoms of a disorder in our modern society and its stressful and sedentary lifestyle.

The title of Robert M. Sapolsky's wonderful book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (1994 W.H. Freeman and Company) says it all. Wild animals do not suffer from stress related conditions. Hunter/gatherer and agrarian humans do not either. In non industrialized nations, you may find a variety of other types of illness, but you probably won't see people suffering from panic attacks, ulcers, coronary disease, obesity or other manifestations of stress related illness, even though they experience many of the same stressful events as those of us in the "civilized" world. To understand why, you need to have a basic understanding of the physiological chain reaction caused by stress, which I shall attempt to explain in the most simple and concise terms for this article (the chemistry and function of neurotransmitters and hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, substance P, cortisol, etc. have already been covered in great detail in many other publications, so for the sake of brevity, and to keep you from getting bored, I will simply use the blanket term "chemicals" for the remainder of this article). Furthermore, I will also address how one can alleviate and eliminate the long-term effects of this chain reaction by simple changes in lifestyle and nutrition.

Understanding Stress

Stress, just like pain and fear, is a gift when it occurs at the appropriate time. Fear tells us not to do dumb things that will hurt us. Pain tells us that we're doing something dumb that is hurting us. If we had no pain receptors, we wouldn't know if we were being cut, bitten or on fire, and as a result our bodies would sustain significant and potentially irreversible or terminal injury. Likewise, stress also has a very important physiological function. It's not simply an annoyance. Even though abstracts such as fear, pain and stress are thought of negatively because of how they manifest themselves, it is important to think of them as necessary tools for survival. They are not something that one should strive to eliminate, but our modern society has made it necessary to think of them in a different context than our predecessors had to.

The body is governed by the nervous system, which is divided into two parts: The sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the "fight-or-flight" reflex, while the parasympathetic nervous system controls rest and relaxation. Stress, as one might guess, is dictated by the sympathetic nervous system. When stress occurs, your "fight-or-flight" reflex becomes dominant. In nature, if you are attacked or threatened, your body releases a number of chemical components which cause dilation of the pupils, tunnel vision, constriction of blood vessels, hyperventilation and rapid heartbeat. They also have stimulating and anesthetizing effects. Additionally, your digestive system goes nuts in order to rid your body of extra weight. These are all normal and necessary events which enable an organism to either fight off an attacker or run from it.

In nature, an organism's response to this attack will burn up all of the chemicals released when it either fights or runs away at top speed from the threat. After the organism has expended all of these chemicals, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, and R&R occurs. However, if these chemicals are prevented from being used up appropriately, they quickly become toxic to the body. This is not dissimilar to the analogy of continuously eating food and never eliminating the waste, and therein lies the problem.

In our modern society, we don't typically have to worry about attacks from wild animals, and most of us can go a very long time without ending up in a hostile situation. However, smaller stressors (rent due, relationship problems, school or work deadlines etc.) will over time build up to the point that they release the same chemicals as a full-on attack. Then, seemingly out of the blue, you find yourself in "fight-or-flight" mode with no visible threat or cause in sight. Feelings of dread, panic and despair come out of nowhere, making the sufferer feel as though they're "losing it". As odd as it sounds, you'd have been better off immediately reacting to a direct attack on your person.

So the key, as you may have guessed by now, is keeping a check on these smaller stressors and not letting your body's defensive chemicals build up to major threat levels. You need to burn them up regularly, as quickly and as often as they occur.

Movement is life. Plain and simple. We are not designed to sit on our butts day in and day out without substantial amounts of movement. Animals don't have the modern conveniences that we do, so they have no choice but to do two things, and only two things, during the course of their day. They walk around looking for food, and they try not to become food. Walking around looking for food is movement. Occasionally sprinting either after their food, or to avoid becoming food is intense physical movement. At night they sleep. This pattern is mirrored in the behavior of our hunter/gatherer ancestors, as well as in contemporary stone-age societies. Our bodies are composed mainly of water, and, just like water, if we sit still for too long we will become toxic. Primitive societies alleviate this problem naturally. They maximize their sympathetic nervous system by hunting and gathering during the day, and then once they are tired, they relax together in the evening, by eating their bounty, singing, telling stories, lovemaking, etc.

You already know that when you eat or drink something, it's going to be converted into energy and then waste. You know that the waste part will have to leave your body or you'll have problems. This is absolutely the same for the chemicals released during stress. They need to be used up as energy, and then the waste products need to be removed.

You already know about solid and liquid waste, but the primary means of waste elimination are respiration and perspiration. I.e., you need to breathe deep and hard and you need to sweat. Regularly. Your lymphatic system is also responsible for the removal of toxins, and unlike the circulatory system, your lymphatic system has no pump of its own. It relies on physical activity to move toxins through its ducts and into the bloodstream, which will carry it to the lungs and sweat glands for elimination. This is also true of the integumentary system, which is composed of the skin and sweat glands. Your skin is your largest organ, which is responsible for waste removal via perspiration, as well as protection and synthesis of Vitamin D from sunlight. You'll notice that people who are in poor health and who do not exercise will often have skin conditions, chronic bad breath and body odor. This is because they're not regularly flushing toxins from their respiratory and integumentary systems.


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