If we were to answer this in simple terms, then it is anxiety that cause panic attacks. Getting to understand that anxiety and why it causes panic attacks is key to getting on top of your symptoms and learning how to beat panic attacks. I also have one excellent resource for getting rid of panic attacks and anxiety which I will tell you about at the end of this post.
What Is Anxiety?
The actual definition of anxiety is a state of fear or apprehension which stems from the anticipation of a real or imagined threat or situation or event. Almost everyone experiences anxiety to some degree in their lifetime. For most people this is only mild and easy to manage, but for some people anxiety and panic attacks can be an absolutely horrible experience. Dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest and throat and a racing heart are just some of the symptoms of a panic attack.
Fight, Flight or Freeze
Most people have heard of this as just fight or flight, but it has been upgraded, so to speak, to include freeze. It is the body’s inbuilt fight or flight response that could be the root cause of panic attacks.
Anxiety is a response to a real or perceived threat or situation and this is all aimed at readying the body to either fight or flee. So anxiety actually protects us from danger, which sounds a little strange when sometimes it feels like anxiety itself is the danger.
When faced with this real or perceived threat, the brain will send a signal to the nervous system to prepare the body for a fight or flight response. When the threat has subsided, the nervous system also helps to calm the body down. The two key parts of this are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system (stay with me, it will all make sense soon).
The sympathetic nervous system is the one that gears up our body for a fight or flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is the one that calms us down and helps to restore the body to its natural state.
So when the sympathetic nervous system is activated, it releases adrenalin and continues to do so throughout our panic attack. Then after a while, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and calms us back down again.
The good thing is the body can’t stay in the state of panic so the parasympathetic nervous system will take affect at some point, whether we can will it into action or not. The human body is an incredible thing, and it often uses these systems to protect us. For example, if you try holding your breath, at some point the body will override your will and make your breathing start again.
Try to remember this next time you are having a panic attack. The body will not harm itself and the feelings and sensations that you feel as part of your panic attack will subside without any harm being done to you.
Panic Attack Symptoms
Heart rate – When we have a panic attack and the sympathetic nervous system is activated, our heartrate speeds up to ensure that all areas of the body are supplied with oxygen. Again, this is the body’s way of getting ready for fight or flight. The body will actually drain blood from where it is least needed and divert it to areas where it is most needed in a fight or flight response.
For this reason, many people may feel tingling or even numbness during a panic attack. These sensations often leave the person believing they are either having or about to have a heart attack.
Breathing – During a panic attack it is very common to experience tightness in the chest and throat and issues with breathing. During a panic attack the speed of our breathing and the depth of it actually speed up, in order to supply the body with more oxygen. Due to this increase in breathing, it is not uncommon to feel breathless or experience sensations such as a tightness in the chest or throat.
With the changes to our breathing during a panic attack, there is actually less blood supplied to the head. This is why some people experience side effects such as dizziness, blurred vision and confusion.
Blurred vision – During a panic attack the pupils will widen to allow more light to come in, and this can result in blurry vision or seeing stars.
Dry mouth – Another side effect of a panic attack is a dry mouth. The body produces less saliva during a panic attack which leads to a dry mouth.
Nausea – There is decreased activity in the digestive system during a panic attack and blood is also drained away from the stomach when the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. This is why many people feel nausea with their anxiety and panic attacks.
Other body sensations – aches and pains and shaking can be caused by the muscles tensing up in preparation for a fight or flight response. This can cause overall body tension as well.
Sometimes it is the fear of a panic attack which actually causes us to have one in the first place. Fear of losing control is a big driver behind panic attacks. This heightened level of anxiety can be caused by a number of things, such as stress and diet, or sometimes you are just in a heightened state of anxiety through basic fear of when your next panic attack is coming.
Panic attacks are awful. I’ve suffered with them myself for a number of years. My general anxiety has been worse because of the stress of worrying about when my next panic attack is going to come. After many years, I stumbled across what turned out to be the solution for me personally. The Panic Away system by Barry McDonagh has been around for a while and has helped many people (including myself) to defeat panic attacks. I won’t go into too much detail about it here, but if you want to know more you can read my full product review by clicking here.