How To Understand Panic Attacks (Michel de Montaigne)

Obstupui, steteruntque comæ et vox faucibus hæsit…

‘I was amazed, my hair stood on end, and my voice stuck in my throat.’

Virgil, Æneid, ii. 774, written between 29 and 19 BC.

To clearly debunk any suggestion that anxiety (in it’s malignant forms) is a ‘new‘ disorder of the mind, caused by too much societal pressure in our rapidly advancing culture, we will look at brief examples of anxiety’s physical manifestation—the panic attack, in a historical context.

Fear and panic is a natural human reaction to the perception of harm, whether real or imaginary, it doesn’t make a difference.

…I myself have seen very many become frantic through fear; and, even in those with the best settled temper, it is most certain that it begets a terrible astonishment and confusion during the fit…but even amongst soldiers, a sort of men over whom, of all others, it ought to have the least power, how often it has converted flocks of sheep into armed squadrons, reeds and bullrushes into pikes and lances, friends into enemies…¹

Montaigne, Essays, XVII: Of Fear.


A panic or anxiety attack, is the physical result of some turbulent series of real or imagined (the resulting fear is the same) event, that starts with an impending sense of doom, or acute dread. It is always, however, the fear of fear itself.

It takes some people more time than others to grasp this concept completely. Put simply, it is not the situation we are afraid of, it is the physical symptoms that fear and anxiety produce.

We are not afraid of the frog, we are afraid of how we will feel around the frog.

It is said, that some people’s fear of public speaking is so great that they would rather be in the casket at a funeral, rather than delivering the eulogy. For some people, the fear is really that severe.

It may seem nonsensical, but it’s not the act of speaking in front of a large audience that is the problem. Our thoughts cause the panic attack, not the event.

You can’t pull a piece of fear or panic from your pocket. You can’t show someone a piece of worry, it doesn’t exist.

The people in the audience don’t throw pieces of fear at you; your body doesn’t absorb the fear leaving you a quivering mess of physical symptoms. We, and we alone, create the type of mental state that generates the physical symptoms of fear.

The perception of threat to self

An overly anxious person can have panic attacks leading up to an event, weeks or even months before it happens. They are fearing the fear itself, the bad feeling that could happen on the day. Shortness of breath, overwhelming sense of dread, inability to speak, blurred vision, chest pains, nausea, shaking, sweating, and then the guilt that follows. A feeling of worthlessness, because somehow, it is our fault it happened again. That is what we are fearing, not the public speaking bit (or whatever it is you are afraid of).

Anxiety is the most self-perpetuating of all mental states. Fear creates fear.

The only thing to fear is fear itself. The other stuff doesn’t actually mean anything. Make sense now? The physical symptoms are evolutionary, designed to get us away from bears and tigers really quickly because we perceive them as a threat, the rest of it we make up in our heads.

…sometimes it adds wings to the heels…sometimes it nails them to the ground, and fetters them from moving…²

Montaigne, Essays I, describing a classic Fight or Flight response, 16th Century.


In the first pitched battle the Romans lost against Hannibal…a body of ten thousand foot, that had taken fright, seeing no other escape for their cowardice, went and threw themselves headlong upon the great battalion of the enemies, which with marvelous force and fury they charged through and through, and routed with a very great slaughter of the Carthaginians, thus purchasing an ignominious flight at the same price they might have gained a glorious victory…the thing I am most afraid of is fear, that passion alone, in the trouble of it, exceeding all other accidents.³ 

Montaigne, on Consul Sempronius (Tiberius Sempronius Longus) against Hannibal of Carthage.

We must realize that fear and panic attacks are not ‘new’ events stemming from the stresses of our society. Fear, anxiety and panic have always been within us.

The fear of fear is more often than not, the root of many life decisions, which can literally shape how our lives unfold. It can mean the difference between living happily and living in constant dread.

Fear only fear itself.

¹ Montaigne, Michel de, Hazlitt, William Carew, 1834-1913, (ed.), Cotton, Charles, 1630-1687, (tr.), Montaigne, Michel de, 1533-1592, Hazlitt, William Carew, 1834-1913 et al. The Essays of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne : translated by Charles Cotton ; edited by W. Carew Hazlitt. Encyclopædia Britannica, Chicago [etc], 1952, 25.

²Ibid 26.



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