When Panic Attacks
Today, some people lightly throw around the phrase “panic attack.” When feeling stressed or nervous, they may say, “Oh my goodness, I’m about to have a panic attack.” Though in this case used as an exaggeration, for many, panic attacks are a serious issue. For instance, one woman experiencing a panic attack for the first time said, “My nerves seemed to catch on fire, my muscles became as stiff as rods, and my heart felt like it would explode...I was paralyzed with fear- the same feeling you get when you step off a curb and realize a car is heading straight toward you” (1). This feeling, often equated with insanity, is extremely common during an attack. Even more, more than a quarter of all people will have a panic attack at least once in their lifetime. Thus, in order to better understand the reality of a panic attack, it is essential to comprehend its anatomy, its symptoms, and its effects on the brain and the body. Indeed, by collecting observations of those who endure a panic attack, one may develop a stronger understanding of what led this woman, and so many other individuals to experience the feeling o completely losing control of their lives.
To begin, a panic attack is clinically defined as a sudden episode of intense and powerful sense of fear that develops for no apparent reason and that triggers severe physical reactions. It peaks
within ten minutes and is marked by at least four of the following symptoms: racing heart; sweating;
shaking; shortness of breath; chest pain; a sensation of choking; nausea; dizziness or numbness;chills or hot flashes; fear of insanity, losing control or dying; and the feeling that the world is not real and that you are detached from your body (1). Overall, a variety of physical responses occur that one can both observe and feel. For instance, when one undergoes a panic attack, the brain stem releases noradrenaline. Noradrenaline is a hormone produced by the medulla of the adrenal gland. It is an active component in a person’s fight-or-flight response mechanism. Specifically, noradrenaline activates one’s sympathetic nervous system; it increases glucose concentrations in the blood, raises blood pressure and heart rate, and increases muscular power and resistance to fatigue. Thus, when released during a panic attack, it floods the “logic center” of a person’s brain, impairing judgment, reasoning, and causing one’s mind to fill with negative thoughts (2). Indeed, an individual becomes
unable to comprehend the variety of negative thoughts and sensations surrounding them and begin to assume the worst- that they are dying or having a heart attack. When noradrenaline reaches the brain’s limbic system, specifically the amygdala and the hippocampus, which play significant roles in memory and emotion, an individual’s anxiety begins to skyrocket (1). Likewise, because of the relation between noradrenaline and the fight-or-flight response, a person’s pupils dilate in order to fend off vision impairment. However, the dilation allows more light into one’s eye, and may cause an individual to literally “see spots.” In addition, during a panic attack, a person’s adrenal glands release adrenaline. Along with noradrenaline, this raises a person’s heart rate and causes more blood to pump into one’s muscles and brain. Finally, while experiencing panic, one’s body, especially one’s muscles and brain, attempts to receive as much oxygen as possible. However, this effort can make an individual hyperventilate. States Griffin, “Decreased carbon dioxide in the brain leads to dizziness, faintness, or numbness or tingling in your extremities” (1).
Though these physical and mental effects are extremely uncomfortable and alarming, a panic attack is not physically dangerous. However, repeated panic attacks suggest something more serious and may suggest Panic Disorder (PD). Panic Disorder is a type of anxiety in which recurrent episodes of panic attacks occur along with a fear and worry over the possibility of future attacks (3). According to Griffin, PD is believed to be caused by an inherited deficiency of serotonin (1). Serotonin plays an important role as a neurotransmitter and modulate anger,aggression,body temperature, mood, sleep, sexuality, and appetite (4). In addition, it acts to stabilize one’s mood and produce a feeling of well being. Researchers studying PD found that people with Panic Disorder have up to thirty percent fewer of a certain type of serotonin receptor. Still, PD is extremely treatable. Indeed, individuals with PD often undergo cognitive-behavioral therapy, in addition to using antidepressants.
Hence, panic attacks are a real occurrence with different levels of severity. The physical feedback from a panic attack, whether experienced once or more than once, can be traumatizing. However, understanding the circumstances and composition of a panic attack, and how it affects one’s body and brain, can unravel one’s fears and misapprehensions.
1- Special Report on Panic Attacks. Women’s Health. Pages 150-164.