• Chris Varano

Demystifying Panic Attacks

If you have ever had a panic attack, I’d bet you describe it as one of the most unpleasant experiences in your life. Panic attacks can vary in their intensity and frequency. Some people experience intense and long panic attacks, while others may experience shorter and more mild ones. People may have panic attacks multiple times a day, while others are fortunate to rarely experience them.

I have experienced panic attacks and after exploring scientific journals, I have realized that although they are unpleasant, the acute experience of a panic attack is not dangerous. However, when high levels of stress accumulate overtime, a person can suffer from tremendous health problems.

My first major panic attack occurred my junior year of college. It was a chill Friday night and my roommates and I decided to watch a movie. We chose to watch the movie Mad Max: Fury Road, a fairly intense and violent film to say the least. The first few scenes were thrilling and gruesome. About fifteen minutes into the movie, I began to feel overwhelmed and in the moments to follow, I began to panic. I was in no apparent danger; I was simply watching a movie. However, I thought I was going to die.

The panic attack started with extreme tunnel vision, followed by a sensation that the walls were moving towards me. I initially tried to shift my attention from the panic attack back to the movie, but this only made matters worse. I now felt my heart pounding along with feelings of nausea. What was next? My brain was fully convinced that I was having a heart attack, only making this experience worse.

I told my roommates about what I was experiencing and they tried to reason with me, “Chris, you’ll be okay. Just take some deep breaths”. But I wasn’t okay, I was still freaking out and was desperate for this nightmare to end.

I thought that getting myself away from the TV and into my quiet room would help alleviate the panic. It didn’t. I then tried to alleviate the intense nausea by forced vomiting. However, this offered no relief. I then tried to lay down and fall asleep, but now I became even more anxious because I began to notice how intensely my heart was pumping, further convincing myself that I was going to have a heart attack.

The panic attack continued into the night until I fell asleep around 3am. Fortunately, I woke up the next morning feeling better, but I was still shaken up. I was fearful that the extreme panic would manifest again. Thankfully, it didn’t.

I wanted to share my story of my worst panic attack because I know that others have experienced this as well. I hope this story provided you with feelings comfort, if you are someone who has experienced a panic attack. And if you have, it’s okay.

Panic attacks can be induced by high levels of stress and fear. A death in the family, job loss, or a debilitating injury can cause a panic attack. However, they can also occur randomly, manifesting from a seemingly harmless situation. Regardless of why the panic attack occurs there are some common symptoms that are accompanied with panic attacks:

- Sense of danger

- Fear of death or losing control

- Sweating

- Shaking

- Shortness of breath

- Lightheadedness

- Nausea

- Cramping

- Chest pain

- Headache

- Dizziness

- Tingling/numbness

- Feeling of unreality or detachment

When a panic attack occurs, the part of our brain that is responsible for responding to danger goes into overdrive. The amygdala, which plays a critical role in the anxiety circuits in our brains becomes extremely active during a panic attack. When a panic attack occurs, the amygdala releases large amounts of adrenaline into the blood stream in response to a fearful situation and puts the body into fight or flight mode. Interestingly enough, the amygdala can sense and respond to danger before our conscious mind even realizes that something is wrong. Although, we don’t have all of the answers for how and why panic attacks occur, there are some solutions to reduce the power of panic attacks.

When a panic attack arises, we may feel that we are losing our minds or that we are dying. This is normal. But, there is a big misconception on what we should do when a panic attack occurs. Many people believe that when the physical sensations of a panic attack arise, it is necessary to employ techniques such as deep breathing to help us calm down. However, this is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. When we have a panic attack, our amygdala is firing and telling our bodies that we are in extreme danger. By fighting the sensations, we only strengthen the panic attack. In essence, any attempt to fight the panic attack, only fuels the panic attack. This is because we are combating our amygdala and essentially telling our amygdala that there is even more danger than previously expected, resulting in a longer and more intense panic attack.

What researchers such as Dr. Harry Barry suggest doing during a panic attack is something called flooding. Flooding is a technique that teaches our brains to consciously accept that the panic attack is occurring. Flooding teaches us to embrace the physical symptoms of a panic attack and accept them for what they are. When a panic attack begins, we need to recognize it for what it is. Simply tell yourself, “This is a panic attack. I am having a panic attack. I am experiencing physical sensations. These physical sensations can’t hurt me. This will pass and I don’t have to do anything” After telling yourself this, simply observe and let the physical sensations to be felt by your body. This is a powerful technique because it takes away the power of the panic attack and begins to silence our amygdala. As we continue to accept the physical sensations of a panic attack, simply as physical sensations, the amygdala will become less and less active. This will ultimately make it less likely that a panic attack will arise in the future.

For those of you who are reading and haven’t had a panic attack before, this method can still serve a purpose to you. Stress can manifest itself in a lot of ways, and when our negative thought patterns produce physical symptoms, we can also begin to silence our amygdala by solely focusing on the symptoms. Employing this technique can drastically decrease stress levels and allow for a healthier life.

We are human beings. Our brains have evolved over thousands of years to protect us and keep us alive. Even though we live in a society that is fairly safe, our brains still operate as if we are in the Serengeti, living everyday fighting for our survival. Parts of our brain like the amygdala were essential to the survival of our human species, however this brain region has not yet adapted to our current world and that is okay. This is something we all have to remember and understand in order for us to handle our anxieties, fears and panic attacks.

Clinic, M. (2018, May 4). Panic attacks and panic disorder. Retrieved January 4, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/panic-attacks/symptoms-causes/syc-20376021.

Kim, J. E., Dager, S. R., & Lyoo, I. K. (2012, November 20). The role of the amygdala in the pathophysiology of panic disorder: evidence from neuroimaging studies. Retrieved January 4, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3598964/.

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