Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Understanding Panic Attacks

After last week’s post “On Anxiety” (which you can read here), I realised that explaining what anxiety feels like only really paints a tiny part of the picture.

Anxiety and panic attacks are caused by a flaw in the function of the brain. It’s not logical, so it can be a pretty tricky thing to understand - whether you suffer from the illness or not.

So what even is anxiety?

Certain levels of anxiety are normal - and even healthy. 

It’s our body’s response to a situation that our brain perceives as a threat.

It becomes a problem when someone starts experiencing high levels of anxiety at times when they aren’t being threatened.

There isn’t always an explanation as to why somebody might start experiencing this. Just like with physical illnesses, it can occur without any obvious cause or warning.

What’s a panic attack?

You’ll probably know that, when your brain perceives something as a threat, your body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This is a survival technique that has evolved to keep us alive.

People with anxiety suffer because their brain sends a message to their body, telling it that it’s being threatened when it actually isn’t.

This can happen unconsciously, or as a result of anxious/negative thoughts (e.g. “What if everybody’s judging me?”, “What if I embarrass myself?”). The brain feels threatened, so it sends the body into fight or flight mode. This is what causes the physical symptoms of panic attacks. It's a natural fear response happening at the wrong time.

What happens during a panic attack?

Now that your brain has sensed that it's under threat, it's working to prepare your body to either ‘fight’ (fight off the "threat"), or ‘flight’ (run from the "threat").

To do this, a number of things will happen:

→  Adrenaline gets released in the body (causing your heart to beat faster)

 Your body tries to take in more oxygen, causing you to breathe faster (which can cause hyperventilation or trouble breathing)

 This oxygen is transferred into energy, preparing you to either fight or run from the threat. (As you’re not actually being threatened, your body has no use for this sudden build-up of energy. Because you aren't fighting or running from the 'threat', the energy isn't getting released - which is one of the reasons why panic attacks feel so intense.)

 Your blood pressure increases to prepare your muscles to ‘fight or flight’. Your muscles tense up, which may cause your body to start shaking.

→ Your body starts diverting blood to the major muscle groups that it relies on during emergencies (which can cause light-headedness/dizziness)

→ In order to focus on these major muscle groups, your body shuts down many of its systems – including your digestive system (which can cause sickness)

→ Your senses are heightened to prepare you to ‘fight or flight’ (which may make you feel 'spaced out', or detached from the world around you)

Panic attacks are far from pleasant, and this build-up of panic and frightening symptoms often triggers even more panic (causing a ‘positive feedback loop’). 

Many people who experience panic attacks for the first time actually think that they're dying or having a heart attack. A lot of sufferers describe panic attacks as a feeling of ‘losing control’, which is why the attacks will often just cause people to panic even more.

Note: Many anxiety sufferers end up becoming fearful of fear itself. This is why ‘avoidance’ is a common coping mechanism in anxiety sufferers. They want to avoid ever having to experience panic attacks, so instead, they try to avoid things that they fear might trigger it. The thought of panicking has now become something that makes them panic.

Why do some people experience regular panic attacks?

Another technique that our brain has developed to help us survive, is to store any information that it thinks could be of use to us.

When a panic attack occurs, our brain stores this memory away. The next time you encounter a similar situation, it retrieves this memory - causing the same reaction. 

The idea, of course, is that this will protect you. If your brain stored away a memory of you being attacked by an animal (the threat), the next time you faced this threat, it would retrieve this memory and send your body into fight or flight mode - allowing you to be prepared.

However, it’s not very handy when your brain registers something like a busy shopping centre as a threat. Your mind and body have been trained to go into ‘panic mode’ any time something (e.g., a busy crowd) triggers a memory of a past panic attack.

I think this is an important thing to note for anybody who doesn’t understand anxiety. I hope that this helps to explain why it’s is such a tricky illness to tackle. Every negative experience is stored away in a sufferer’s memory, which just increases the risk of it repeating itself the next time. It becomes a vicious cycle, which can be incredibly hard to break out of. 

It takes a lot of work, a lot of time - and oftentimes, a lot of nasty experiences - before things can get better. It's a huge and daunting challenge, and I hope it's clearer now why so many anxiety sufferers try to avoid it altogether, or struggle when they try to work through it. 

For further information and advice, you can visit:

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments below & I’ll try my best to answer them. Obviously I'm far from an expert on the subject, but I hope that this helped to explain things a little better - whether you're someone who suffers from anxiety, or you're just trying to get a better understanding of it.

Talk again soon.



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