of Panic Attacks
short and obvious answer: panic attacks are caused by high
anxiety. But, what exactly is anxiety? Understanding how anxiety
crops up will help you defeat panic attacks.
of the biggest myths surrounding anxiety is that it is harmful
and can lead to a number of various life-threatening conditions.
is defined as a state of apprehension or fear resulting from
the anticipation of a real or imagined threat, event, or situation.
It is one of the most common human emotions experienced by
people at some point in their lives.
most people who have never experienced a panic attack, or
extreme anxiety, fail to realize the terrifying nature of
the experience. Extreme dizziness, blurred vision, tingling
and feelings of breathlessness—and that’s just the tip
of the iceberg!
these sensations occur and people do not understand why, they
feel they have contracted an illness, or a serious mental
condition. The threat of losing complete control seems very
real and naturally very terrifying.
Response: One of the root causes of panic attacks?
am sure most of you have heard of the fight/flight response
as an explanation for one of the root causes of panic attacks.
Have you made the connection between this response and the
unusual sensations you experience during and after a panic
is a response to a danger or threat. It is so named because
all of its effects are aimed toward either fighting or fleeing
from the danger. Thus, the sole purpose of anxiety
is to protect the individual from harm. This may seem ironic
given that you no doubt feel your anxiety is actually causing
you great harm…perhaps the most significant of all the
causes of panic attacks.
the anxiety that the fight/flight response created was vital
in the daily survival of our ancient ancestors—when faced
with some danger, an automatic response would take over that
propelled them to take immediate action such as attack or
run. Even in today’s hectic world, this is still a necessary
mechanism. It comes in useful when you must respond to a real
threat within a split second.
is a built-in mechanism to protect us from danger. Interestingly,
it is a mechanism that protects but does not harm—an important
point that will be elaborated upon later.
Physical Manifestations of a Panic Attack: Other pieces of
the puzzle to understand the causes of panic
attacks. Nervousness and Chemical Effects…
confronted with danger, the brain sends signals to a section
of the nervous system. It is this system that is responsible
for gearing the body up for action and also calms the body
down and restores equilibrium. To carry out these two vital
functions, the autonomic nervous system has two subsections,
the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous
I don’t want to become too “scientific,”
having a basic understanding of the sympathetic and parasympathetic
nervous system will help you understand the causes of panic
sympathetic nervous system is the one we tend to know all
too much about because it primes our body for action, readies
us for the “fight or flight” response, while the
parasympathetic nervous system is the one we love dearly as
it serves as our restoring system, which returns the body
to its normal state.
either of these systems is activated, they stimulate the whole
body, which has an “all or nothing” effect. This
explains why when a panic
attack occurs, the individual often feels a number of
different sensations throughout the body.
sympathetic system is responsible for releasing the adrenaline
from the adrenal glands on the kidneys. These are small glands
located just above the kidneys. Less known, however, is that
the adrenal glands also release adrenaline, which functions
as the body’s chemical messengers to keep the activity
going. When a panic attack begins, it does not switch off
as easily as it is turned on. There is always a period of
what would seem increased or continued anxiety, as these messengers
travel throughout the body. Think of them as one of the physiological
causes of panic attacks, if you will.
a period of time, the parasympathetic nervous system gets
called into action. Its role is to return the body to normal
functioning once the perceived danger is gone. The parasympathetic
system is the system we all know and love, because it returns
us to a calm relaxed state.
we engage in a coping strategy that we have learned, for example,
a relaxation technique, we are in fact willing the parasympathetic
nervous system into action. A good thing to remember is that
this system will be brought into action at some stage whether
we will it or not. The body cannot continue in an ever-increasing
spiral of anxiety. It reaches a point where it simply must
kick in, relaxing the body. This is one of the many built-in
protection systems our bodies have for survival.
can do your best with worrying thoughts, keeping the sympathetic
nervous system going, but eventually it stops. In time, it
becomes a little smarter than us, and realizes that there
really is no danger. Our bodies are incredibly intelligent—modern
science is always discovering amazing patterns of intelligence
that run throughout the cells of our body. Our body seems
to have infinite ways of dealing with the most complicated
array of functions we take for granted. Rest assured that
your body’s primary goal is to keep you alive and well.
holding your breath for as long as you can. No matter how
strong your mental will is, it can never override the will
of the body. This is good news—no matter how hard you try
to convince yourself that you are gong to die from a panic
attack, you won’t. Your body will override that fear
and search for a state of balance. There has never been a
reported incident of someone dying from a panic attack.
this next time you have a panic attack; he causes of panic
attacks cannot do you any physical harm. Your mind may make
the sensations continue longer than the body intended, but
eventually everything will return to a state of balance. In
fact, balance (homeostasis) is what our body continually strives
interference for your body is nothing more than the sensations
of doing rigorous exercise. Our body is not alarmed by these
symptoms. Why should it be? It knows its own capability. It’s
our thinking minds that panic, which overreact and scream
in sheer terror! We tend to fear the worst and exaggerate
our own sensations. A quickened heart beat becomes a heart
attack. An overactive mind seems like a close shave with schizophrenia.
Is it our fault? Not really—we are simply diagnosing from
Effects Activity in the sympathetic nervous system increases
our heartbeat rate, speeds up the blood flow throughout the
body, ensures all areas are well supplied with oxygen and
that waste products are removed. This happens in order to
prime the body for action.
fascinating feature of the “fight or flight” mechanism
is that blood (which is channelled from areas where it is
currently not needed by a tightening of the blood vessels)
is brought to areas where it is urgently needed.
example, should there be a physical attack, blood drains from
the skin, fingers, and toes so that less blood is lost, and
is moved to “active areas” such as the thighs
and biceps to help the body prepare for action.
is why many feel numbness and tingling during a panic attack-often
misinterpreted as some serious health risk-such as the precursor
to a heart attack. Interestingly, most people who suffer from
anxiety often feel they have heart problems. If you are really
worried that such is the case with your situation, visit your
doctor and have it checked out. At least then you can put
your mind at rest.
of the scariest effects of a panic attack is the fear of suffocating
or smothering. It is very common during a panic attack to
feel tightness in the chest and throat. I’m sure everyone
can relate to some fear of losing control of your breathing.
From personal experience, anxiety grows from the fear that
your breathing itself would cease and you would be unable
to recover. Can a panic attack stop our breathing? No.
panic attack is associated with an increase in the speed and
depth of breathing. This has obvious importance for the defense
of the body since the tissues need to get more oxygen to prepare
for action. The feelings produced by this increase in breathing,
however, can include breathlessness, hyperventilation, sensations
of choking or smothering, and even pains or tightness in the
chest. The real problem is that these sensations are alien
to us, and they feel unnatural.
experienced extreme panic attacks myself, I remember that
on many occasions, I would have this feeling that I couldn’t
trust my body to do the breathing for me, so I would have
to manually take over and tell myself when to breathe in and
when to breathe out. Of course, this didn’t suit my
body’s requirement of oxygen and so the sensations would
intensify—along with the anxiety. It was only when I employed
the technique I will describe for you later, did I let the
body continue doing what it does best—running the whole show.
a side-effect of increased breathing, (especially if no actual
activity occurs) is that the blood supply to the head is actually
decreased. While such a decrease is only a small amount and
is not at all dangerous, it produces a variety of unpleasant
but harmless symptoms that include dizziness, blurred vision,
confusion, sense of unreality, and hot flushes.
Physical Effects of Panic Attacks:
that we’ve discussed some of the primary physiological
causes of panic attacks, there are a number of other effects
that are produced by the activation of the sympathetic nervous
system, none of which are in any way harmful.
example, the pupils widen to let in more light, which may
result in blurred vision, or “seeing” stars, etc.
There is a decrease in salivation, resulting in dry mouth.
There is decreased activity in the digestive system, which
often produces nausea, a heavy feeling in the stomach, and
even constipation. Finally, many of the muscle groups tense
up in preparation for “fight or flight” and this
results in subjective feelings of tension, sometimes extending
to actual aches and pains, as well as trembling and shaking.
the fight/flight response results in a general activation
of the whole bodily metabolism. Thus, one often feels hot
and flushed and, because this process takes a lot of energy,
the person generally feels tired and drained.
Manifestations: Are the causes of panic attacks all in my
head? is a question many people wonder to themselves.
goal of the fight/flight response is making the individual
aware of the potential danger that may be present. Therefore,
when activated, the mental priority is placed upon searching
the surroundings for potential threats. In this state one
is highly-strung, so to speak. It is very difficult to concentrate
on any one activity, as the mind has been trained to seek
all potential threats and not to give up until the threat
has been identified. As soon as the panic hits, many people
look for the quick and easiest exit from their current surroundings,
such as by simply leaving the bank queue and walking outside.
Sometimes the anxiety can heighten, if we perceive that leaving
will cause some sort of social embarrassment.
you have a panic attack while at the workplace but feel you
must press on with whatever task it is you are doing, it is
quite understandable that you would find it very hard to concentrate.
It is quite common to become agitated and generally restless
in such a situation. Many individuals I have worked with who
have suffered from panic attacks over the years indicated
that artificial light—such as that which comes from computer
monitors and televisions screens—can can be one of the causes
of panic attacks by triggering them or worsen a panic attack,
particularly if the person is feeling tired or run down.
is worth bearing in mind if you work for long periods of time
on a computer. Regular break reminders should be set up on
your computer to remind you to get up from the desk and get
some fresh air when possible.
other situations, when during a panic attack an outside threat
cannot normally be found, the mind turns inwards and begins
to contemplate the possible illness the body or mind could
be suffering from. This ranges from thinking it might have
been something you ate at lunch, to the possibility of an
oncoming cardiac arrest.
burning question is: Why is the fight/flight response activated
during a panic attack even when there is apparently nothing
to be frightened of?
closer examination of the causes of panic attacks, it would
appear that what we are afraid of are the sensations themselves—we
are afraid of the body losing control. These unexpected physical
symptoms create the fear or panic that something is terribly
wrong. Why do you experience the physical symptoms of the
fight/flight response if you are not frightened to begin with?
There are many ways these symptoms can manifest themselves,
not just through fear.
example, it may be that you have become generally stressed
for some reason in your life, and this stress results in an
increase in the production of adrenaline and other chemicals,
which from time to time, would produce symptoms….and
which you perceive as the causes of panic attacks.
increased adrenaline can be maintained chemically in the body,
even after the stress has long gone. Another possibility is
diet, which directly affects our level of stress. Excess caffeine,
alcohol, or sugar is known for causing stress in the body,
and is believed to be one of the contributing factors of the
causes of panic attacks (Chapter 5 gives a full discussion
on diet and its importance).
emotions are often pointed to as possible trigger of panic
attacks, but it is important to point out that eliminating
panic attacks from your life does not necessarily mean analyzing
your psyche and digging into your subconscious. The “One
Move” technique will teach you to deal with the present
moment and defuse the attack along with removing the underlying
anxiety that sparks the initial anxiety.
Joe McDonagh is an international panic disorder coach.
His informative site on all issues related to panic
attacks can be found here: http://familymanagement.com/go2/endpanic