The Science of Panic Attacks
Updated: Jun 9
If you’ve ever had the extreme displeasure of experiencing a panic attack, you know how truly awful and terrifying they can be. Many people mistake panic attacks for heart attacks. The fear that one might be dying only compounds the terror associated with panic attacks. The fear causes more panic and the panic causes more fear. But why is that? What is actually happening in your brain and body to cause a panic attack and what can you do to prevent them from occurring again?
What is a Panic Attack?
Diagnostically speaking, panic attacks can include heart palpitations, sweating, trembling or shaking, sensations of shortness of breath or smothering, feelings of choking, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, chills or heat sensations, numbness or tingling sensations, feelings that one is detached from reality or one’s body, fear of losing control, and/or fear of dying.
It is very common for people to mistake panic attacks for heart attacks. However, unlike heart attacks, panic attacks are the body’s physical response to heightened levels of anxiety. For some people panic attacks seem to occur “out of the blue”. The average age of onset for panic attacks is 20-24 (American Psychiatric Association). In one year, 2-3% of American will experience panic disorder (American Psychiatric Association).
What Causes a Panic Attack?
Unfortunately, the neurological circuitry that leads to panic attacks is poorly understood. However, scientists believe that the first trigger are neurotransmitters which send signals to different brain structures that influence processes in your body. In the case of panic, it is believed that levels of norepinephrine and serotonin, and the amygdala and hypothalamus, play a primary role (verywellmind.com).
Somehow, there is an activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the "fight-or-flight" response. Once your fight-or-flight response is activated, adrenaline is released into your bloodstream, which causes feelings of panic such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, and dizziness.
You might experience this during a job interview, while standing in a tightly enclosed space, while making a public speech, or during any scenario that causes you extreme anxiety. But, as previously mentioned, the panic attack can occur seemingly out of the blue. However, you can work with a therapist at Rhapsody Behavioral Healthcare to begin to identify the triggers of your panic attacks. Although they can seem to occur at random, this is never truly the case. Your therapist can use cognitive behavioral techniques to get to the root of your anxiety triggers. We can also use exposure therapy to expose you to your trigger and employ de-escalation and coping strategies to reduce your anxiety. There is always hope to get better.
What to Do When You Are Having a Panic Attack
The good news is that you don’t have to live your life at the mercy of panic disorder.
1. Take slow deep breaths. Try to inhale through your nose and hold it for at least 3 seconds and exhale through your mouth for at least 3 seconds. Repeat this until you begin to feel your anxiety subside.
2. Repeat to yourself (out loud or in your mind), “I am not in danger. I am not dying. I am not in danger. I am not dying.”
3. Close your eyes OR find an object to focus your vision on. The goal is to not allow your eyes to wander.
4. Use your mind’s eye to envision yourself in a peaceful, happy place. For me, it is my secret garden with beautiful waterfalls, colorful flowers, and chirping songbirds. Perhaps, for you it is a sandy beach or your grandparents' lake house. Identify your “Happy Place” and go there when you feel anxious or stressed. This works best if you practice deep breathing at the same time.
5. If you have been prescribed a benzodiazepine by a qualified medical professional, you can take one during a panic attack to relieve symptoms.
6. If you prefer natural remedies to pharmaceutical drugs, you can rub pure lavender oil on your hands, arms, or anywhere that would enable you to inhale the scent of the lavender. Lavender is known or provide stress-relief. You can also drink lavender or chamomile tea (Healthline.com).
The Fear of Recurring Panic Attacks
One of the hallmark symptoms of panic disorder is the intense fear that another panic attack could occur at any moment. But you can take control of your panic disorder. You can put your anxiety in the backseat while you take control of the steering wheel. You can achieve this with a therapist at Rhapsody Behavioral Healthcare.
It is 100% possible to recover from panic disorder with the right support. You CAN do it. Contact us today for a 15-minute consultation or to schedule an appointment.