Panic attacks and stress: the science behind why it happens

If you’ve never experienced a panic attack yourself, chances are you know someone who has. The sweating, shaking, shortness of breath and accelerated heart rate. It’s a worrying sight and experience. But why do panic attacks happen, and what can you do about them?

First off, panic attacks may feel like it, but they aren’t heart attacks. Many people mistake them for such and make frequent trips to the doctor  believing it’s a life-threatening medical problem. And while they aren’t as serious, they often feel like it. However, it is  possible to rule out medical problems as the cause of panic attacks (which should be left to a Doctor of course) and to bring the focus on the ‘panic’ itself.  

The Mayo Clinic defines a “sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack or even dying. Although panic attacks themselves aren’t life-threatening, they can be frightening and significantly affect your quality of life. But treatment can be very effective.”

The biology behind panic attacks

So if panic attacks are physical reactions, what actually happens to your body when one occurs?

First, your neurotransmitters (which are chemical messengers) send signals to different parts of your brain that influence processes in your body. It’s believed that norepinephrine and serotonin, and the brain structures known as the amygdala and hypothalamus, play a crucial role.

Once these neurotransmitters are initiated in the brain, your sympathetic nervous system activates. Remember that the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the ‘flight-or-flight’ response that kicks in when you get chased by a bear or need to keep your heart pumping steadily to transfer blood evenly throughout your body to keep it going. This is also that response that many people seem to be living with everyday which can lead to all sorts of health complications without a rest.

When the ‘fight-or-flight’ response is engaged, adrenaline is released into your bloodstream, which causes the feelings of panic and gets your heart rate pumping making you short of breath, sweaty and dizzy.

The origins of your panic

Evolutionarily panic is a good thing because it wakes you up immediately and helps you flee. But we don’t do so much fleeing these days, being the in the top of the food chain and all. So with no actual physical threat, all the excess energy caused by the panic is detrimental to you, because where does it go besides round and round? This is the panic cycle that is so easy to get caught up in.

If you’ve ever given a speech in front of more than a few people, you’ll probably be familiar with the panic cycle. Before you walk on stage, you’re so focused on what you need to say that you forget to breath. By the time you’re on stage, you just catch your breath and suddenly have to swallow hard and gasp for air. You just can’t find your voice!

This anxiety and loss of breath can leave you feeling faint, and creates a vicious cycle whereby anxiety prolongs the release of adrenaline.

Managing panic attacks

So now that we know what causes panic, what can we do about it? Thankfully a lot. The first step is in learning how to control your breath to return to your parasympathetic nervous system and allow your body to reabsorb the adrenaline. Let’s take the example of giving a big speech or presentation. Here’s 4 things you can do to reduce

  • Find a quiet restroom, stand tall and raise your hands into the air and wave them about for a bit.
  • Take deep inhales and slow exhales.
  • Don’t have any alcohol the night before.
  • Get a good amount of sleep. The average adult needs 7-9 hours.

Managing panic attacks in the moment

But what happens when you or someone you know if in the middle of a panic attack? What’s the whole thing with the paper bag we see in movies?

When we have panic attacks, we tend to hyperventilate, which is taking quick, sharp breaths to try and control the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream and counterbalance your rapid heart rate due to adrenaline overload. But hyperventilating causes you to exhale more than you inhale, leaving you with less carbon dioxide in the blood than you should have. This leads to a rise in blood pH and is why you start to feel weak and dizzy.

The point of breathing into the bag is to ‘re-breathe’ the exhaled CO2 in the hopes that you can bring your body back to a normal pH level.

Don’t have a bag handy? That’s fine, it’s not actually the recommended method to control your hyperventilation anyway. Instead, bring your mind to your breath and focus on slowing your exhalations.