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The Clinic on Dupont Toronto

Understanding panic attacks and the body-mind connection


Have you been in class and started to notice your heart rate beating faster? Your palms start to get sweaty and you begin feeling dizzy. You’re grasping for air and it feels like you can’t move or breath. You feel like you’re going to pass out and try to figure out what’s going on. You might even think you’re having a heart attack.

Panic attacks are quite common; about 1 million Canadians experience panic attacks each year. Ever wonder why our bodies are reacting in such a way? Let’s break it down.

As human beings we all experience different degrees of stress at times, however, we have a limit on the amount of stress each of us can handle. In psychology, we often use the term “somatization” to refer to the body-mind connection. Metaphorically, we can think of it as a kettle. When we think about stress we can think of it as though it is water we are pouring into the kettle.  This could be any form of stress including psychological stress (repressed emotions/thoughts), stress from transitions, from the demands of our work, relationship stress, responsibilities of being a parent, etc. Some of us might have smaller kettles, middle size kettles or larger kettles. These kettles represent something we call our “distress tolerance”. Thus, some of us can handle more stress than others (having larger kettle), however again we all have our limits. When our kettles are filled with water, it begins to pore over, leading our bodies to send the message that we are overwhelmed. This can take the form of a panic attack. Alternatively, our bodies can send this message through the development of somatic symptoms (i.e. getting headaches, stomach aches, pain in our body), or perhaps we might snap more easily at our friend or partner.

An example to illustrate the body-mind connection and how it functions would be the following: let’s say we’re at work and have a headache. We’re working on a project and all of sudden our boss comes over and says, “by the way that project is due tomorrow morning”. Typically, what will happen is that our pre-existing headache will amplify due to increased psychological stress. Essentially, our boss just poured a bunch of water into the kettle. Now let’s say we have a friend at work nearby and he turns over and says “why would he ask you to do that, that’s just not feasible to get that done by tomorrow; you must be so stressed and anxious”. Essentially, we have a friend providing us emotional support and validating our experience. We can turn to this co-worker and externalize what we’re feeling, perhaps restating how anxious and stress we are. Typically what will happen is that our headache that amplified after our boss came over will mitigate subsequent to speaking with our co-worker.

This example illustrates the function of our body-mind connection. Stress can amplify pre-existing symptoms or create symptoms all together including the development of a panic attack.

In order to pour out some of the water from the kettle so to speak, here are some practical strategies to help mitigate stress:

1) Call a Friend or Family Member:

By talking with a friend or family member we can externalize how we’re feeling and get emotional support. Referring to the example above, this can be a great way to pour out some water from the kettle after feeling validated.

2) Journal:

We can write down what we’re feeling as another way to externalize our emotions.

3) Name Our Emotions Out Loud:

We can say out loud what emotions we are feeling to ourselves.

4) Do Self-Care Activities:

We could go running or do physical activity.

5) Sensory-Motor Psychotherapy:

If we go to the gym and take a medicine ball, we can picture within this ball all of our stress/anxiety or other emotions. Then, we can throw the ball down as hard as we can as a way to release and externalize our feelings.

6) Use a Stress Ball:

Similar to the example above, we can take a stress ball and picture all of our emotions inside of it and squeeze it as though we are mitigating our emotions.

7) Art:

We can draw, paint, sculpture or do any form of art to express our emotions and what we are feeling.

8) Music and Dance:

We can also use music and dance as other forms of expression.

theclinicondupont-lisa-zemanovichLisa Zemanovich, MSW, RSW

Lisa is a Registered Social Worker, Psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of trauma/PTSD, somatization and mood disorders. She received her Master’s degree from the University of Toronto and utilizes an eclectic approach, drawing from evidence-based practices when working with clients.

Posted September 06, 2019
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