If you have ever had a panic attack you know how scary it can be. First, your attack seem to come out of nowhere—unexpected and unprovoked. Second, the mere idea of having another one in the future is enough to produce disabling anxiety.
In the throes of your first panic attack, you’re sure you’re dying right here and now, and for good reason. The symptoms of a panic attack can include a rapid or pounding heart, chest tightness, shortness of breath, dizziness, paralyzing anxiety, sweating, shaking, and hot flashes. If you’ve ever had a panic attack, it’s clear—you don’t want to experience another.
So what’s happening during a panic attack? Your body is experiencing the fight or flight response, but on steroids. Your adrenal glands are pumping out hormones, including adrenaline, and the physical sensation of overwhelming fear is similar to being in sudden and immediate danger.
There are a number of theories as to why people suffer from panic attacks. There may be a hereditary component, and triggers may include a major life transition, illness, stress, and medications that increase activity in the brain related to fear reactions.
In Chinese medicine, there are three organ systems that are related to panic attacks; the Heart, Spleen, and Kidneys. The Heart is home to the Shen, or the spirit, according to Chinese theory. Its function is similar to the brain in Western thinking. As such, the Heart is the home to consciousness, memory, emotions, and thinking. Whenever someone suffers from any kind of emotional upset or condition, the Heart is always involved.
The Chinese Spleen is an organ system of digestion. It sifts and sorts what has been ingested, takes what is useful and turns it into nutrients, and gets rid of what is not needed. While the Spleen primarily digests foods, it also plays a role in the sifting and sorting of ideas. The emotion associated with the Spleen is worry—essentially, not being able to sort through and let go of unnecessary ideas. Worry is a kind of unhealthy rumination. When it gets out of control, worry can produce anxiety and fear—the foundation of panic attacks.
Finally, the Chinese Kidney also plays a role in panic attacks in two ways. First, the emotion related to the Kidney is fear, which is the underlying component of panic. Secondly, the Kidney is the deepest and most nourishing of our organs. It’s responsible for how well you age, your underlying body constitution, and is the source of all the fundamental substances in your body. Your Kidney is the organ system most damaged by stress and anxiety. The Western condition of adrenal fatigue (from stress, anxiety, overwork, etc.) correlates to a severe Kidney depletion in Chinese medicine.
Chinese medicine and acupuncture can offer a number of strategies to help someone suffering from panic attacks. An acupuncturist would work by first calming your Shen, relieving anxiety, and minimizing stress. This is an effective first line of defense, as research has documented the positive effects acupuncture has on brain chemistry. This effect accounts for the relaxing and calming sensation patients feel both during and after their treatments.
A practitioner of Chinese medicine might also address your panic attacks by nourishing your Spleen and restoring your Kidney health. Beyond acupuncture, you may be prescribed an herbal formula, some dietary suggestions, and strategies for stress relief.
Finally, some practical advice if you suffer from panic attacks:
- Realize that your body cannot sustain this mega-fight or flight response for more than a few minutes. It will pass.
- When you’re having a panic attack, you might think the best thing to do is sit down, relax, and let it pass. However, if you get up and move around, go for a walk, do some jumping jacks, your body will metabolize the adrenaline faster.
- Avoid caffeinated drinks and any other foods that you think might trigger an attack.
- In almost every instance, stressful situations or circumstances are at the core of anxiety and panic conditions. Do what it takes to get your stress under control. Take regular walks, meditate, go fishing, take a Yoga class, play video games, change your circumstances, or whatever else it takes for you to eliminate stress.
- Seriously consider acupuncture. It can be a very safe, effective, drug-free way to eliminate anxiety and panic attacks.