Fight/Flight Response: One of the root causes of panic attacks?
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.
Physical Manifestations of a Panic Attack: Other pieces of the puzzle to
understand the causes of panic attacks. Nervousness and Chemical
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 attacks.
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.
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.
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 will.
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 relaxed state.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Physical Effects of Panic Attacks:
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
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 and shaking.
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.
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.
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.
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 possible.
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.
burning question is: Why is the fight/flight response activated during a
panic attack even when there is apparently nothing to be frightened of?
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.
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
increased 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.
Joe Barry is an international panic disorder coach. His informative site
on all issues related to panic and anxiety attacks can be found here:
This article is copywritten material (Reprinted with permission)