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Panic Attack: Explained

Post 12 of 21 of the #newhabitchallenge.

In May 2019, I wrote about a panic attack I had at the Cirque du Soleil show in Geneva. I shared on the experience in the post but when it was time to give it some explanation, I wrote: "I don’t know. That’s probably the most troubling. It came out of nowhere..."

Not long after that, a lovely lady called Jill from Canada wrote to me to say she had lived a very similar experience at a show in Vegas and she said: "I wonder if part of it was overstimulating (...) they were doing ‘dangerous’ moves and my brain just started to freak out and I couldn’t stop it."

It got me thinking about a few things:

Overstimulation: hyperesthesia

What Jill and I probably have in common is hypersensitivity, and therefore hyperesthesia. I wrote a post about this in July last year. Hypersensitive people are not only your standard cry baby. You're not "hypersensitive" just because you cry a lot (although, you may cry a lot). You're hypersensitive when you have hyperesthesia, this ability to receive all the little bits of information coming at you through the five senses. So when you're hypersensitive and have hyperesthesia, you're triggered easily. And you're triggered easily because you're constantly battling with a sea of information coming at you.

What happens at a show like Cirque du Soleil? Your senses are overstimulated. Visually, the space is filled with colors and textures, it's dark and bright, there's steam or smoke and people moving side to side, twirling and swirling around. Acoustically, the space is filled with loud drums, string instruments, vibrant bases and other sounds. It's a lot to take in and very easy to be overwhelmed, and a favorable environment to start having a panic attack.


Another trait Jill and I probably share is hyper-empathy. Like Jill mentioned, she was watching the acrobats do dangerous things and her brain freaked out. When you're hyper-empathetic, something happening to someone you see or hear, feels like it's happening to you too, and your body reacts accordingly.

What happens when you're at a show like Cirque du Soleil? Even though you're sitting in the crowd, your body is moving side to side, twirling and swirling around (just like that acrobat). Your palms are sweaty, you're breathing faster, you may even catch yourself stomping the ground with your foot as you watch the acrobat land his jump. Unless you're used to the danger of tightrope walking, you're going to freak out and again, feeling in danger is a favorable state of being to start a panic attack.

Associations with traumas

Jill didn't mention any associated traumas of hers, but I realized a few months later that there were actual traumas of mine that I was either associating with the Cirque du Soleil situation, or carrying with me into the Cirque du Soleil show tent.

But it's late so more tomorrow!

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