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The Science Behind Panic Attacks

Since high school, I’ve lived with anxiety and panic attacks. They’re hard to predict at times because I could go months without having one and then suddenly have multiple attacks daily. It's important to understand that there’s a difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack. An anxiety attack usually has a trigger while a panic attack generally comes out of nowhere for no reason. I’ve experienced both several times in my life.

During both a panic attack and an anxiety attack, the physical symptoms are extremely strong. Symptoms can include a rapid heart rate, hyperventilation, sweating, a choking sensation, dilated pupils, dry mouth, nausea, and cold/numb hands and feet. These symptoms make the attack seem terrifying and some people who experience them may even think that they are dying. However, these symptoms work to help the individual and are not actually causing any harm.

When an attack strikes, the body immediately goes into what it is called a “fight or flight” mode. The brain sends signals throughout the rest of the body to prepare to avoid danger. Dilated pupils, for example, bring in more light to the eyes so it is much easier to see an escape route. Sweating cools the body down and the numbness of the extremities is due to blood flow staying where it’s needed most. Hyperventilation helps the body increase oxygen supply. Nausea, although quite uncomfortable, is an important response to fight or flight as well. Since proper digestion isn’t absolutely necessary for fighting or getting to safety, digestion begins to slow down, which then causes nausea. As for dry mouth, the body keeps fluids where they are most needed in the fight or flight mode, meaning fluid is taken from the mouth to supply fluids elsewhere. It is also important to remember that these symptoms happen automatically and they cannot be controlled. If you see someone experiencing a panic attack, do not tell the person to “stop panicking” as these symptoms are out of the person’s realm of control for the moment.

The causes of panic attacks are not completely known. Anxiety and panic attacks often go hand in hand. Some theories of why people experience panic attacks include genetics, traumatic events, extreme stress, or hormonal imbalances in the brain. Those with family members who also have anxiety with panic attacks are at greater risk for developing anxiety. The good news is that anxiety can be managed with proper treatment. Treatment options include therapy, medication, and physical activity.

As someone who lives with anxiety and panic attacks, I can tell you that experiencing one is tremendously uncomfortable and terrifying. I’ve had panic attacks which only lasted a minute or two and I’ve had ones that have lasted for an hour. Each time, I have felt like I’m near death and while it’s difficult in the moment, I try to remember the science of my body and how it’s working to protect me and not harm me. The human body functions to live. A panic attack makes a person feel like life is ending, but the opposite is true: the body is actively working to stay alive through the symptoms it produces. It is also important to remember that all panic attack episodes end eventually. No panic attack will last forever although it may feel like it in the moment.


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