The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
Much of the fear surrounding mental health disorders is fueled by a lack of understanding about them. A quick glance at some symptoms, such as intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, and dissociation, seem scary at first, and not without good reason: they are moments of intense anxiety, fear, confusion, and disconnection from oneself. However, once you understand why these symptoms occur, what is going on in your mind and body during those moments, and how to make it out the other side, they may be a little less intimidating and feel a bit easier to manage. If you are looking to learn more about what happens when you have intrusive thoughts, a panic attack, or dissociate, or are hoping to see how you can deal with and manage them, this is the article for you!
According to Doctor of Psychology Ashley Butterfield on The OCD & Anxiety Center, intrusive thoughts are “unwanted thoughts, images, impulses, or urges that can occur spontaneously or that can be cued by external/internal stimuli.” Sometimes they happen due to a mental illness, but they can also just happen completely randomly. They may become recurring and cause many people distress and anxiety. Intrusive thoughts often have dark themes, such as violence, and in this way may be completely opposite from what you would normally think or how you would typically act. This furthers this distress, as many people believe they are their intrusive thoughts, which is not the case. Intrusive thoughts do not reflect at all on the nature of a person’s character; however, many who experience them feel guilty or ashamed for them, thus leading to it not being a very prominent topic of discussion in mental health discourse.
However, as the OCD & Anxiety Center points out, “over 90% of the population experiences intrusive thoughts (Abramowitz, Deacon, & Whiteside, 2011).” Those with mental disorders and those without them both experience intrusive thoughts, so you are not alone and have nothing to be ashamed of! Intrusive thoughts are just thoughts; they have no bearing on who you are as a person or your morality. Rather than just trying to suppress these thoughts (as some will suggest to “just ignore them”), try instead working on recognizing the thought for what it is, an intrusive thought, and then confront and work through it. Thoughts only have as much power as we give to them, so by practicing examining an intrusive thought and seeing it as just the thought it is, you can learn how to take away its power.
A panic attack, as defined by the Better Health Channel, is a “a brief episode of intense anxiety, which causes the physical sensations of fear.” While anyone can experience a panic attack, those that have recurring panic attacks have what is called a panic disorder, which falls under an anxiety disorder. A panic attack normally lasts anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour, and around 35% of the population experience panic attacks at least once in their lifetime. Beyond an overall anxious feeling and overwhelming fear, the symptoms of a panic attack include a rapid heart rate, shaking, sweating, difficulty breathing, muscle tension, and hypervigilance. Some people feel as though they are going to die, go crazy, or lose control.
A panic attack occurs when the body’s “flight or fight response” is triggered; when our body senses danger, it triggers our nervous system to activate this response in order to protect you. The response is an act of self-preservation, but it becomes an issue when this response is activated with no immediate danger present. Your body may go into “flight or fight” mode when you are extremely stressed, work out excessively, or consume a large amount of caffeine. While the symptoms of a panic attack are uncomfortable and can be scary, panic attacks are not life-threatening. The key to making your way through them is to focus your attention outside of the attack; try not to think about your symptoms or try to counteract them with thoughts like “we shouldn’t be panicking!” Instead, you can try the “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” technique or other ways to ground yourself, reciting the alphabet backwards, or tracing the alphabet in the air with your foot.
What can sometimes be the scariest symptom is when your mind and body feel disconnected from each other. Dissociation, as per the Better Health Channel’s definition, is a “mental process where a person disconnects from their thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity.” Dissociation is often linked with dissociative disorders, and they are experienced most often by those who have endured trauma or lived through traumatic events. They may have dissociated during the event; hours, days, or even weeks following it; or they might dissociate years later when the event is mentioned or discussed or if something triggers them. While dissociation can resolve itself over the course of time, there are medical treatments available for it, in addition to support from therapy and trauma-informed mental health professionals.
Beyond a disconnection from yourself, some symptoms of dissociation include an unexpected and sudden shift in your mood, derealization (or feeling like the world is distorted or fake), memory problems or lapses such as not being able to recall what just happened or forgetting important information, or identity confusion. Dissociation, especially in terms of dissociative disorders, is most often caused by trauma experienced during childhood. It can, however, be caused by trauma experienced later in life in adulthood or by an extremely stressful event. Dissociative disorders may require medical treatment, but dissociation can be treated through talk therapy, overall stress management, and by treating underlying mental health issues that may be worsening it. Similar to panic attacks, in order to help yourself when you are dissociating, you can use grounding techniques like breathwork, engaging your senses or exercising in order to strengthen your mind and body connection.