The Greek God of Panic Attacks

This is how Kim Bassinger related her panic attack in a health food store:

All of a sudden, it was like everything became silent. I could see people’s mouth moving but there was nothing inside my head…And I look at my hand, and my hands were shaking. I was sweating so profusely and I could not move. I could not walk and my knees would not move. I then I made my way out of the store, and I got to the parking lot and made it to my car. And I remember getting the keys in the ignition, cranking the car up, taking the back roads to my home and parking, and not leaving the house for six months.

The ancient Greeks believed that panic attacks were caused by Pan, the god of forests and shepherds. According to Greek mythology, a mischievous Pan took pleasure in tormenting and terrifying people traveling through the forest.

Pan and Syrinx by Nicolas Poussin
Pan and Syrinx by Nicolas Poussin (detail)

Pan would hide in the bushes, awaiting his unwitting victims. When a person passed by Pan would suddenly appear and cause terror. People were so afraid of him that the merest rustling of bushes would invoke panic. Thus for the Greeks panic was an intense fear that came on suddenly, and without any visible cause.

A panic attack is the most terrible manifestation of anxiety. It is an overwhelming feeling of dread. The perception of danger triggers a reaction that starts in the brain and spreads to different parts of the body. The result is an extreme experience of fear marked by elevated heart beat, hyperventilation and profuse sweating.

You feel as if you were going to die, lose control, and go insane. As one person told me: “I felt as if an unknown force pushes me to do something against my will!” Sometimes all this happens for no particular reason. And at times it happens suddenly. Although it usually doesn’t last too long, in the end, symptoms are so intense and violent that the person fears imminent death or madness. Some fear even having a heart attack. Their symptoms may include: heavy breathing, feeling faint or nausea, a numb sensation throughout the body, hot or cold flashes, excessive sweating, vertigo, dizziness and tingling sensations.

Panic attacks create a vicious circle. The sudden change in breathing, sweating and heart beat causes the person to think of thoughts of doom and disaster. These menacing thoughts, in turn, exacerbate the physiological changes which reinforces the negative thoughts. Finally this vicious circle causes a mental blackout.

A panic attack could last from 10 minutes to several hours. Most panic attacks subside on their own in matters of several hours. A man who came to see me said that while driving across a bridge he suddenly became filled with sheer terror. He was convinced that he was having a heart attack. Although he had experienced such fear before, this time his experience was extremely intense and terribly frightening.

Panic attacks can be caused by a series of fear and anxiety related conditions. Problems such as a specific phobia, an obsession, a fear of catching a disease or even an acute case of depression can cause a panic attack.

Experiencing extreme fear can cause a person to feel that they are losing control of themselves or of their bodily functions. The physical manifestations may include: going blank while talking to a group of people; blushing and sweating in a public situation; losing the control and doing something embarrassing; losing control of sphincter muscles and passing a noisy flatulence or losing bowl control; losing one’s composer and going crazy; losing control of the car and causing an accident; lose control and throw oneself out of the window.

Thus, any form of fear, anxiety, obsessions and compulsions can potentially cause a panic attack.