Panic Attacks

ERP Graphics courtesy of HealioOpens in new window

There you are, at the mall with friends, when your heart begins to pound. You start trembling and hyperventilating, and it feels as if you’re about to die. You rush to the doctor only to learn you’ve had a panic attack.

A panic attack, according to the leading hospital Mayo ClinicOpens in new window, is “a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.”

Does that sound familiar? Do you have episodes where you feel like you’re losing control or having a heat attack?

Do you find yourself irrationally paralyzed by terror, unable to control the spiraling anxiety that threatens to suck you into a black hole of your worst fears? If this happens to you repeatedly, you may be suffering from panic disorderOpens in new window.

The Mayo Clinic states that panic attacks typically include a few of many of these symptoms:

  • Sense of impending doom or danger
  • Fear of loss of control or death
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hyperventilation
  • Chills
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Faintness
  • Tightness in your throat
  • Trouble swallowing

One patient described her panic attacks as feeling like an elephant sitting on her chest. Her chest was tight and heavy and she couldn’t seem to get a full breath.

Another patient admits to frequenting the emergency room and regularly seeking out specialists with the latest technology in scanning and diagnosing to finally confirm her greatest fear that she has a heart problem, even though she has been told repeatedly that her symptoms are stress and anxiety-related panic attacks.

A common denominator with most patient is they feel like they are going to freak out or lose control.

Dan Harris, an ABC news anchor who suffered a panic attack live on air in front of five million people and later wrote a book about it, describes the physical experience vividly:

Out of nowhere, I felt like I was being stabbed in the brain with raw animal fear. A paralytic wave of panic rolled up through my shoulders, over the top of my head, then melted down the front of my face. The universe was collapsing on me. My heart started to gallop. My mouth dried up. My palms oozed sweat.

Panic attacks may trigger a feeling of shameOpens in new window; and we should probably add that to the list of symptoms, as it seems to go hand in hand with panic attacks.

The Positive Aspect of Panic Attacks

It’s confusing and embarrassing to find yourself terrified for no apparent reason. But you know what? Panic attacks are nothing to be ashamed of – they are actually your body doing its job!

Here’s the good news: Our minds and bodies are designed to have anxietyOpens in new window and panic attacks for a reason.

We panic because something in our world feels threatening to us. When we have that sense of fear, our brains respond with a chemical reaction designed to help us survive in a dangerous situation.

This is a very good thing! Imagine if you were walking down the street in your neighborhood, enjoying a leisurely stroll when, all of a sudden out of nowhere, you found yourself the target of a very large, angry, snarling dog. If you had no mental or physical reaction to a situation like this at all, guess what you could be? Lunch!

In fact, your body is designed to respond instantaneously to threats like this by activating what Harvard psychologist Walter CannonOpens in new window dubbed the fight-or-flight responseOpens in new window.

CannonOpens in new window was the first to recognize, in 1915, that under threat the body reacts in a way that gives it the ability to fight harder or run faster in the event of imminent danger.

I’m sure you’ve heard stories of average-sized men and women who find they can perform superhuman feats when they or their children are threatened. In a nutshell, this is how it works:

You see danger, and your sympathetic nervous systemOpens in new window immediately responds by stimulating the adrenal glands, triggering a surge of two primary chemicals known as stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline.

When these chemicals are released they travel with lightning speed throughout the central nervous system, enabling you to respond with far greater strength and speed for a brief period of time in order to survive. Pretty amazing, right?

The bad news, however, is that we can experience this same reaction whether the threat is real or imagined. In the mid-twentieth century, Hans SelyeOpens in new window discovered that the amazing chain of physiological events that make up the “fight or flight” response can be triggered even if the threat is only in the mind.

You can be sitting behind your desk, staring into the distance, and begin to daydream about an angry dog charging at you. Without realizing it, you have just engaged the very same part of your brain and caused the very same power-packed chemical reaction to be released, traveling all throughout your central nervous system and giving you super-human life-saving strength, without ever leaving the safety of your office.

That’s powerful stuff. In its more intense forms, it can feel like you’re having a heart attack, or you’re literally about to die. The reality is, you aren’t going to die, and you will recover. However, returning to a normal physical state may take a while—it varies depending on a person’s ability to self-regulate, but can take up to sixty minutes for some.

Essentially, what we’ve just described is what occurs when you have a panic attack. Something in your mind sends a signal to your body that it’s under threat, and your body responds exactly as it’s been wired to do. If you look at the panic attack symptosm listed earlier, they’re very similar to the psychological changes the body undergoes when it’s getting ready to run or do battle. The problem is, there’s nothing for your to fight or run from. As the Mayo Clinic definition said, a panic attack “triggers severe physical reactiosn when there is no real danger or apparent cause.”

  1. Bourne, E.J. (2005). The anxiety and phobias workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  2. Elliott, C.H., & Smith, L.L. (2002). Overcoming anxiety for dummies. New York: John Wiley.
  3. Ohman, A. (2008). Fear and anxiety. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 709 – 729). New York: Guilford.