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Understanding the Science Behind a Panic Attack

"Every physical symptom of anxiety has a loving intention behind it"

That is true!

When you have a panic attack, your body is trying to protect you from danger - whether that grave danger is actually present or not. When your body is reacting to stress, it may trigger the physiological  "flight or fight"  response which can include physical symptoms such as a fast heart rate, heavy breathing, sweating, shaking.

What is actually happening in your body?

When your brain, specifically your amygdala, alerts your hippocampus of a potential threat-


Hippocampus: Function, size, and problems


the hormone adrenaline floods into your bloodstream.  Most likely, you have already experienced adrenaline and have related it to an exciting event, whether that be riding a roller-coaster, trying a new trick on your bike, or snowboarding down a big hill. Your heart beats faster sending blood to your muscles which allows your body to move/run faster.  Your breathing becomes faster so that you are able to take in more oxygen. Your blood sugar may climb high. Your senses get sharper. All of these quick changes your body does gives you the energy you need to handle a dangerous situation or flee from a threat quickly - aka, the flight or fight response!

While it is natural to be initially terrified in the moment - just remember, your body is really trying to keep you safe. It's okay to gently tell your body, "Hello, I know you are working hard to protect, but I am not in a life or death situation and I can take it from here."

Figure from "The Science of Anxiety" , Dr. Danesh A. Alam, courtesy of Northwestern Medicine.

 Here are some ways I have been taught to de-escalate a panic attack:

1) BREATHE. Getting my breathing under control is one of the first things I do when I have a panic attack. I use a technique called square breathing which you can learn how to do in my blog here

2) Shake it out. Burn off the excess adrenaline inside of you AND re-focus your mind on another activity. I usually like to do jumping jacks and/or put on a song and force myself to dance around!

3) Accept. Fighting back a panic attack makes it worse. Tell your body you accept the feeling but don't let it engulf you! "I accept and allow this anxious feeling, I accept and allow this anxious thought. I'm going to continue on with my day, I am not afraid of you."

4) Muscle squeezes! Start with your toes and squeeze them really tight for 10 seconds and then release. Now move to your ankles, flex them really tight for 10 seconds and then release. Continue doing this all the way up your body, hitting every muscle group possible!

I hope understanding what's physically happening in your body during a panic attack will bring you some comfort. While it may feel like it.. you are not dying and your body is not working against you. Your body is on your side, it just may need a little guidance sometimes. Continue practicing de-escalating techniques and don't feel defeated if they don't work on your first try. Reputation re-wires the brain!


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