What Was That!?: Fear of Body Sensations in Panic Disorder


fear of heart attack, panic attack

Hello dearest Panic Disorder sufferers!  Today I wanted to talk to you about an interesting kind of phobia.  We all know about common phobias such as spiders, dogs, germs, etc.  Now let’s talk about a fear that most of us with panic attacks know well; the fear of body sensations.

You may not know this, but the normal anxiety that you experience when you see something you are deathly scared of is a panic attack.  That’s right,  all those horrible symptoms such as shortness of breath, the desire to run or freeze, the pounding of the heart:  all normal responses to scary things.  It is typical to experience these symptoms if say… you were being chased by someone in an alley, if you came face to face with a man eating animal, if the doctor made a concerned face as she looked at your chest X-ray.  The only difference is that you would not call it a panic attack; you would call it genuine terror.

Well, genuine terror is exactly what panic attacks are made of.  It feels even more frightening, however, when the terror is apropos of nothing.  You don’t expect to experience it when you’re sitting in your room reading, or having coffee with a friend.

So this leads us to the subject of this little blog post.  What are you terrified of during a panic attack?  Why a sudden feeling of horror that comes out of nowhere?

The answer is that there IS an object of terror in a panic attack: a sensation in your own body!  A heart flutter, a sudden chill, a feeling of numbness in the legs, tingling in some part of the body, dizziness; these are all examples of internal bodily sensations of which some people develop a fear, a genuine phobia that they are not aware of.

What is so terrifying about these bodily sensations?  Well, in reality, NOTHING.  The body experiences hundreds of sensations caused by the autonomic nervous system in a given week, and most of them go undetected.  Sometimes the sensations are created by anxiety itself; a harmless, temporary emotional state.  Neither body sensations nor anxiety symptoms are dangerous, but to the panic attack sufferer, they are.  These harmless sensations are believed to be as dangerous as an approaching mac truck!

Are you afraid of your bodily sensations?  Answer the following questions:

  1. Are you hyper-aware of your bodily sensations at all times?
  2. Do you make frequent trips to the doctor with different potential ailments or a heart problem?
  3. Have you been tested for asthma more than once and discovered to be normal?
  4. Do sudden changes in your body scare you?
  5. Are you always taking your pulse to make sure it’s normal?
  6. Do you avoid some normal activities because you are afraid of small physical discomforts they might cause?
  7. Are you really anxious when you didn’t get enough sleep the night before?
  8. Can you feel things in your body when other people describe their physical problems to you?

If you answered yes to 3 or more of these you are definitely in the category of people that are hyper-attuned to their body sensations, and live in some degree of fear of them.

For starters, take a look at this comprehensive list of anxiety symptoms in the body that many people experience:

List of Anxiety Symptoms

As you can see there are hundreds of bodily sensations that could be caused by anxiety.  So why do some people let these symptoms come and go without a peep, and some people freak out? Here is what might be going on the mind of a person with panic disorder:

“My bodily sensations are dangerous because they could mean I’m going to die.”

“My bodily sensations may be a warning that I’m about to have a stroke or heart attack.”

“My bodily sensation could be a prelude to a panic attack and panic attacks are dangerous.”

“My bodily sensation is a sign that I’m about to lose control or go crazy.”

Yes, these bodily sensations are terrifying for panic attack sufferers.  The only way to stop being so afraid of them is to face them head on; to sit with them and breathe through them, allowing them to just be there and then allowing them to go away on their own.  It’s time to start “hanging out” with your bodily sensations and realizing slowly and with practice, that they are not there to hurt you, or cause a panic attack, or make you crazy.  They occur naturally and subside naturally.

And PS.: panic attacks are NOT dangerous.  Nobody has ever died of a panic attack, or caused any physical harm to themselves or others because of a panic attack.  They might feel awful, but they are not harmful.  Please see this article on my site for more information: 5 Facts about Panic Attacks