Discovering The Cause 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 conditions.

So What Is Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common emotions that we humans experience, and it is an emotion that everyone at one point or another will experience. Therefore knowing what anxiety is beneficial. Medically defined anxiety is the feeling of apprehension or fear from a real or imagined event, situation or threat.

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 very terrifying.

The Fight or Flight Response: Is it one of the root causes of panic attacks?

You’ve no doubt heard of the “fight or flight” response – it’s our inbuilt mechanism that determines whether we stand and fight on run away when confronted with a potentially dangerous situation. This response mechanism is also one of the root cause of panic attacks.

The first response most of us experience to an imposing threat or danger is anxiety. The reason for it being called anxiety is because its goal is to make us either stand up and fight the danger or run from it. Thereby the sole purpose of anxiety is really to protect us. The irony here is that for those that have panic attacks feel that the anxiety is actually the threat and this is perhaps is the most significant of causes of panic attacks.

If we go back several millennia, back to our ancient ancestors, their anxiety basically kept them alive – determining whether they fled or fought when faced with danger. It’s an automatic response that took control and tried to keep them safe. It helps us respond to these dangerous situations literally within a split second – virtually instantaneously.

The brain will send a signal to the nervous system when danger presents itself. The nervous system then gets the body ready to act as well as helps the body to restore to a homeostatic state. In order to make sure that these necessary functions are carried out our autonomic nervous system is made up of two subsections called the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.

The main duty of the sympathetic system is to release adrenaline, this is the messenger in our body that keeps us going. The parasympathetic system then is called into action after a period of time to restore balance to the body once danger is gone. The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that gets us to calm down and relax.

Your Body Will Always Strive To Remain 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.

So next time you have a panic attack, try to remember that they cannot do you any physical harm. Your mind will undoubtedly make the sensations last much longer than your body would ever have intended, but sooner or later, everything will start to calm down again. I appreciate that’s little comfort when experiencing an attack, having been there myself, but use it to reassure yourself.

Something you may find interesting about our in-built fight or flight system, is that your blood is channelled away from areas where it is not vital, and pumped into areas where it may be required urgently.

A prime example is when we are anticipating some form of physical attack – whether it’s a response to an attacker coming at us with a knife, or being confronted by a sabre toothed tiger. Blood will be “pulled” from extremities like fingers, toes and the skin, and pumped into the major muscle groups like the legs and arms, to help your body prepare for action – whatever that action may be.

The moving of the blood from the fingers and toes is one of the reason that many people experience feelings of numbness during a panic attack. This can then be misinterpreted as a serious health problem that could lead to a heart attack. Talking to your doctor if you are concerned about this is the best advice so that they can check you out. This will help give you peace of mind.

The Respiratory Effects of Panic Attacks

From my own personal experience, one of the symptoms that frightened me the most was that I was going to suffocate, simply because I just couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. It felt like someone had a strangle hold on my lungs – preventing me from getting deep enough breaths. Fortunately I’m still here to tell the story. And I’m pretty sure no one has ever been reported has having suffocated during an attack. So the good news is that a panic attack won’t make you suffocate – your parasympathetic system will always kick in to calm you down again.

During a panic attack the rate at which we take a breath increases and those breaths are not as deep as they usually are. The rapid shallow breathing serves an important function as it gets more oxygen into our tissues so that they are prepared to act. This type of breathing though is often accompanied by feelings of breathlessness, hyperventilation or the feeling of choking and can also lead to chest pain and tightness.

As that I have experience panic attacks first hand, I can tell you that there were times when I wasn’t sure that my body would be able to slow my breathing down and I would concentrate on getting my breathing under control. Telling myself to take breath in and let it out. With my mingling in trying to gain control and disregard what my body needed, it sent my body into overdrive and intensify the feelings I was trying to overcome. It was not until I began using the technique that I will describe to you shortly that I was able to let my body do what it was designed to do.

One of the less obvious side effects of the increased breathing rate, is that blood flow to your brain actually decreases. Although the decrease is slight, and not dangerous, it can make you feel dizzy and lead to blurred vision, hot flushes and disorientation.

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