According to the pattern of the vicious circle, panic attacks are the result of catastrophic interpretations of physical or mental events that the person perceives as signs of danger. Such a reading triggers a series of concatenated evaluations that tend to interpret more or less unusual feelings as evident signs of a catastrophe in progress. Basically, a false alarm with very real implications: levels of star anxiety and considerable discomfort.
We observed what happens during a concurrent panic attack in particular on the effects of incorrect interpretation of physical and cognitive signs at the beginning and during a panic attack, leaving however some open questions. With this article, we will try to answer at least two of these, in particular …
- Why did the person continue to show panic attacks even afterwards? Why is the vicious circle ever activated?
- Is there anything that the person does or does not make her more vulnerable to panic attacks?
Panic Keeping Factors
The vicious circle is just part of what happens during a panic attack. The vicious circle of panic is just the tip of the iceberg of the whole process underlying the panic attacks. The elements we have considered – physical and cognitive symptoms, emotions, and interpretations – provide an explanation of how a high manifestation of anxiety, that is panic, comes to mind. But it is not the only mechanism that can explain the complexity of the phenomenon.
Other important factors to consider are so-called maintenance factors, so called because they are responsible for maintaining the problem. In this case, we are talking about panic, but in fact, these factors are essential in understanding any type of psychological problem. In essence, maintaining factors are the answer to the question: “Why do I keep doing so?”
Following the Clark model of the vicious circle, here are the main psychological mechanisms responsible for maintaining panic syndrome …
- Selective attention
- Protective behaviors
It is good to remember that there are of course other factors, absolutely personal and unique, that do not allow the person to get out of the trap of panic. These three mechanisms, however, can be traced to all those who suffer from panic attacks and serve as a basis for understanding the maintenance cycle of this particular problem.
In general, in anxiety disorders, there is always something that we strongly fear and that, following interpretative processes, involves psychophysical activation, which is then labeled as anxiety. Now, assuming you have a strong fear of something, how would we behave when our environment – external or internal – changes? Very simply, we warn against danger and actively seek to identify it in the new context. Because if we see it, we can take effective measures to avoid the dreaded consequences.
The selective focus, therefore, is to pay specific attention (“selective”) to signals that we tend to associate with a supposed danger. In the case of panic, the selective focus is largely on physical phenomena occurring in our body. When our friend Clare knows he has to go out, he automatically begins to focus his attention on bodily sensations, focusing almost exclusively on his own body (but not only: catastrophic thoughts about what can happen in the dreaded situation are always behind ‘angle).
What happens when the focus is exclusively on an object? Apart from not being able to see anything else, another thing happens: it lowers the threshold of perception of what is being observed. In other words, it becomes much easier to identify the feelings you are looking for. Not only that, but it also tends to increase the intensity of these feelings. In essence, let’s notice them before and they look even stronger because they are actively looking for it. The paradox is that they are the same sensations we tend to interpret as signs of a catastrophe in progress.
This mechanism, therefore, automatically results in a predisposition to the occurrence of the vicious circle of panic. That’s why it’s so easy to “go back” every time. In short, as they say, “whoever seeks … finds it!”
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