? I want to share with my Readers this article by Barry McDonagh, an international panic disorder coach.
Causes of Panic Attacks
The short and obvious answer: panic attacks are
caused by high anxiety. But, what exactly is anxiety? Understanding how anxiety
crops up will help you defeat panic attacks.
One of the biggest myths surrounding anxiety is
that it is harmful and can lead to a number of various life-threatening
Definition of Anxiety
Anxiety is defined as a state of apprehension
or fear resulting from the anticipation of a real or imagined threat, event, or
situation. It is one of the most common human emotions experienced by people at
some point in their lives.
However, most people who have never experienced
a panic attack, or extreme anxiety, fail to realize the terrifying nature of
the experience. Extreme dizziness, blurred vision, tingling and feelings of
breathlessness—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
When these sensations occur and people do not
understand why, they feel they have contracted an illness, or a serious mental
condition. The threat of losing complete control seems very real and naturally
Fight/Flight Response: One of the root causes
of panic attacks?
I am sure most of you have heard of the
fight/flight response as an explanation for one of the root causes of panic
attacks. Have you made the connection between this response and the unusual
sensations you experience during and after a panic attack episode?
Anxiety is a response to a danger or threat. It
is so named because all of its effects are aimed toward either fighting or
fleeing from the danger. Thus, the sole purpose of anxiety is to protect the
individual from harm. This may seem ironic given that you no doubt feel your
anxiety is actually causing you great harm…perhaps the most significant of all
the causes of panic attacks.
However, the anxiety that the fight/flight
response created was vital in the daily survival of our ancient ancestors—when
faced with some danger, an automatic response would take over that propelled
them to take immediate action such as attack or run. Even in today’s hectic
world, this is still a necessary mechanism. It comes in useful when you must
respond to a real threat within a split second.
Anxiety is a built-in mechanism to protect us
from danger. Interestingly, it is a mechanism that protects but does not
harm—an important point that will be elaborated upon later.
The Physical Manifestations of a Panic Attack:
Other pieces of the puzzle to understand the causes of panic attacks.
Nervousness and Chemical Effects…
When confronted with danger, the brain sends
signals to a section of the nervous system. It is this system that is
responsible for gearing the body up for action and also calms the body down and
restores equilibrium. To carry out these two vital functions, the autonomic
nervous system has two subsections, the sympathetic nervous system and the
parasympathetic nervous system.
Although I don’t want to become too
“scientific,” having a basic understanding of the sympathetic and
parasympathetic nervous system will help you understand the causes of panic
The sympathetic nervous system is the one we
tend to know all too much about because it primes our body for action, readies
us for the “fight or flight” response, while the parasympathetic nervous system
is the one we love dearly as it serves as our restoring system, which returns
the body to its normal state.
When either of these systems is activated, they
stimulate the whole body, which has an “all or nothing” effect. This explains
why when a panic attack occurs, the individual often feels a number of
different sensations throughout the body.
The sympathetic system is responsible for
releasing the adrenaline from the adrenal glands on the kidneys. These are
small glands located just above the kidneys. Less known, however, is that the
adrenal glands also release adrenaline, which functions as the body’s chemical
messengers to keep the activity going. When a panic attack begins, it does not
switch off as easily as it is turned on. There is always a period of what would
seem increased or continued anxiety, as these messengers travel throughout the
body. Think of them as one of the physiological causes of panic attacks, if you
After a period of time, the parasympathetic
nervous system gets called into action. Its role is to return the body to
normal functioning once the perceived danger is gone. The parasympathetic
system is the system we all know and love, because it returns us to a calm
When we engage in a coping strategy that we
have learned, for example, a relaxation technique, we are in fact willing the
parasympathetic nervous system into action. A good thing to remember is that
this system will be brought into action at some stage whether we will it or
not. The body cannot continue in an ever-increasing spiral of anxiety. It
reaches a point where it simply must kick in, relaxing the body. This is one of
the many built-in protection systems our bodies have for survival.
You can do your best with worrying thoughts,
keeping the sympathetic nervous system going, but eventually it stops. In time,
it becomes a little smarter than us, and realizes that there really is no danger.
Our bodies are incredibly intelligent—modern science is always discovering
amazing patterns of intelligence that run throughout the cells of our body. Our
body seems to have infinite ways of dealing with the most complicated array of
functions we take for granted. Rest assured that your body’s primary goal is to
keep you alive and well.
Not so convinced?
Try holding your breath for as long as you can.
No matter how strong your mental will is, it can never override the will of the
body. This is good news—no matter how hard you try to convince yourself that
you are gong to die from a panic attack, you won’t. Your body will override
that fear and search for a state of balance. There has never been a reported
incident of someone dying from a panic attack.
Remember this next time you have a panic
attack; he causes of panic attacks cannot do you any physical harm. Your mind
may make the sensations continue longer than the body intended, but eventually
everything will return to a state of balance. In fact, balance (homeostasis) is
what our body continually strives for.
The interference for your body is nothing more
than the sensations of doing rigorous exercise. Our body is not alarmed by
these symptoms. Why should it be? It knows its own capability. It’s our thinking
minds that panic, which overreact and scream in sheer terror! We tend to fear
the worst and exaggerate our own sensations. A quickened heart beat becomes a
heart attack. An overactive mind seems like a close shave with schizophrenia.
Is it our fault? Not really—we are simply diagnosing from poor information.
Cardiovascular Effects Activity in the
sympathetic nervous system increases our heartbeat rate, speeds up the blood
flow throughout the body, ensures all areas are well supplied with oxygen and
that waste products are removed. This happens in order to prime the body for
A fascinating feature of the “fight or flight”
mechanism is that blood (which is channelled from areas where it is currently
not needed by a tightening of the blood vessels) is brought to areas where it
is urgently needed.
For example, should there be a physical attack,
blood drains from the skin, fingers, and toes so that less blood is lost, and
is moved to “active areas” such as the thighs and biceps to help the body
prepare for action.
This is why many feel numbness and tingling
during a panic attack-often misinterpreted as some serious health risk-such as
the precursor to a heart attack. Interestingly, most people who suffer from
anxiety often feel they have heart problems. If you are really worried that
such is the case with your situation, visit your doctor and have it checked
out. At least then you can put your mind at rest.
One of the scariest effects of a panic attack
is the fear of suffocating or smothering. It is very common during a panic
attack to feel tightness in the chest and throat. I’m sure everyone can relate
to some fear of losing control of your breathing. From personal experience,
anxiety grows from the fear that your breathing itself would cease and you
would be unable to recover. Can a panic attack stop our breathing? No.
A panic attack is associated with an increase
in the speed and depth of breathing. This has obvious importance for the
defense of the body since the tissues need to get more oxygen to prepare for
action. The feelings produced by this increase in breathing, however, can
include breathlessness, hyperventilation, sensations of choking or smothering,
and even pains or tightness in the chest. The real problem is that these
sensations are alien to us, and they feel unnatural.
Having experienced extreme panic attacks
myself, I remember that on many occasions, I would have this feeling that I
couldn’t trust my body to do the breathing for me, so I would have to manually
take over and tell myself when to breathe in and when to breathe out. Of
course, this didn’t suit my body’s requirement of oxygen and so the sensations
would intensify—along with the anxiety. It was only when I employed the
technique I will describe for you later, did I let the body continue doing what
it does best—running the whole show.
Importantly, a side-effect of increased
breathing, (especially if no actual activity occurs) is that the blood supply
to the head is actually decreased. While such a decrease is only a small amount
and is not at all dangerous, it produces a variety of unpleasant but harmless
symptoms that include dizziness, blurred vision, confusion, sense of unreality,
and hot flushes.
Other Physical Effects of Panic Attacks:
Now that we’ve discussed some of the primary
physiological causes of panic attacks, there are a number of other effects that
are produced by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, none of which
are in any way harmful.
For example, the pupils widen to let in more
light, which may result in blurred vision, or “seeing” stars, etc. There is a
decrease in salivation, resulting in dry mouth. There is decreased activity in
the digestive system, which often produces nausea, a heavy feeling in the
stomach, and even constipation. Finally, many of the muscle groups tense up in
preparation for “fight or flight” and this results in subjective feelings of
tension, sometimes extending to actual aches and pains, as well as trembling
Overall, the fight/flight response results in a
general activation of the whole bodily metabolism. Thus, one often feels hot
and flushed and, because this process takes a lot of energy, the person
generally feels tired and drained.
Mental Manifestations: Are the causes of panic attacks all in my head? is a question many people wonder to themselves.
The goal of the fight/flight response is making
the individual aware of the potential danger that may be present. Therefore,
when activated, the mental priority is placed upon searching the surroundings
for potential threats. In this state one is highly-strung, so to speak. It is
very difficult to concentrate on any one activity, as the mind has been trained
to seek all potential threats and not to give up until the threat has been identified.
As soon as the panic hits, many people look for the quick and easiest exit from
their current surroundings, such as by simply leaving the bank queue and
walking outside. Sometimes the anxiety can heighten, if we perceive that
leaving will cause some sort of social embarrassment.
If you have a panic attack while at the
workplace but feel you must press on with whatever task it is you are doing, it
is quite understandable that you would find it very hard to concentrate. It is
quite common to become agitated and generally restless in such a situation.
Many individuals I have worked with who have suffered from panic attacks over
the years indicated that artificial light—such as that which comes from
computer monitors and televisions screens—can can be one of the causes of panic
attacks by triggering them or worsen a panic attack, particularly if the person
is feeling tired or run down.
This is worth bearing in mind if you work for
long periods of time on a computer. Regular break reminders should be set up on
your computer to remind you to get up from the desk and get some fresh air when
In other situations, when during a panic attack
an outside threat cannot normally be found, the mind turns inwards and begins
to contemplate the possible illness the body or mind could be suffering from.
This ranges from thinking it might have been something you ate at lunch, to the
possibility of an oncoming cardiac arrest.
The burning question is: Why is the
fight/flight response activated during a panic attack even when there is
apparently nothing to be frightened of?
Upon closer examination of the causes of panic
attacks, it would appear that what we are afraid of are the sensations
themselves—we are afraid of the body losing control. These unexpected physical
symptoms create the fear or panic that something is terribly wrong. Why do you
experience the physical symptoms of the fight/flight response if you are not
frightened to begin with? There are many ways these symptoms can manifest
themselves, not just through fear.
For example, it may be that you have become
generally stressed for some reason in your life, and this stress results in an
increase in the production of adrenaline and other chemicals, which from time
to time, would produce symptoms….and which you perceive as the causes of panic
This inccreased adrenaline can be maintained chemically in the body, even after the stress has long gone. Another possibility is diet, which directly affects our level of stress. Excess caffeine, alcohol, or sugar is known for causing stress in the body, and is believed to be one of the contributing factors of the causes of panic attacks (Chapter 5 gives a full discussion on diet and its importance).
Unresolved emotions are often pointed to as
possible trigger of panic attacks, but it is important to point out that
eliminating panic attacks from your life does not necessarily mean analyzing
your psyche and digging into your subconscious. The “One Move” technique will
teach you to deal with the present moment and defuse the attack along with
removing the underlying anxiety that sparks the initial anxiety.
Barry McDonagh is an international
panic disorder coach. His informative site on all issues related to panic and
anxiety attacks can be found here: http://www.panicportal.com
This article is copywritten
Find more information here PanicAway by Barry McDonaugh
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