So let's take a look at what's actually happening during a panic attack. Knowing what's happening and why it's happening can help relieve some of the fear and discomfort that they create and also open the door to some ways to deal with them.
To begin with, a panic attack can come on during a stressful, fearful situation (interestingly, they don't occur during life-threatening situations) or they can come just out of the blue when everything's going along OK. Some common sensations include chest tightness, rapid heart beat, numbness or tingling in the limbs, feeling hot and flushed or cold, feeling disconnected from ourselves or physical surroundings.
Accompanying and contributing to these sensations is a surge of adrenalin and increased blood flow to the muscles which increases alertness and strength. Energy is mobilized and directed towards fight or flight. The body is going through exactly the same physiological reaction as in a truly life-threatening situation but in the absence of any immediate or apparent danger. There's no saber-toothed tiger outside the cave.
So let's break down some of these sensations into simple physiology and chemistry:
*The pupils of the eyes dilate to improve vision.
*Hearing automatically becomes acutely sensitive to sound.
*Blood flow in the hands and feet decreases (the numbness or tingling sensation) and is
redirected to our deeper skeletal muscles. Blood also collects in the torso to provide
necessary nourishment to any vital organs in need during the emergency.
* Heart rate increases to get blood near vital organs, thereby increasing blood pressure.
* Our breathing accelerates to increase oxygen to rapidly circulating blood.
* Muscles in the arms, hands, legs and feet tense in readiness to fight or flee.
* Even the liver gets involved, releasing increased amounts of glucose (sugar) to fuel
muscles, brain and heart.
Now let's look at breathing for a minute, something we do naturally and without conscious thought. Normal breathing maintains a balance of oxygen and CO2 (carbon dioxide). With hyperventilation during panic that balance gets all out of whack, namely the drop in CO2 and rise in pH (don't worry about understanding the chemistry, I flunked it in college). This increases excitability of peripheral nerve endings, causing tingling around the mouth, fingers and toes.
Our pupils dilate, hands and feet begin to feel cold, the heart continues to race, lights seem brighter, sounds louder, Blood vessels in the brain constrict, decreasing oxygen flow which produces dizziness, faintness, vision distortion, difficulty concentrating and a sense of separateness from our body or surroundings. All of this is basically due to changes of the carbon dioxide in our blood. Most of these sensations develop rapidly, usually in less than a minute of hyperventilation as a result of our body's remarkable ability to defend itself.
WOW! Now that you know all this, don't you feel better? Yeah, right. Paradoxically, the body is operating at peak performance during a panic attack, utilizing its amazing resources necessary to maximize survival chances in the face of danger. But unfortunately, it's misdirected and unnecessary and can be destructive.
Understanding the physiology of what's going on during a panic attack is important and helpful as it can reduce a lot of fear and enable us to learn some useful tools for controlling and getting through an attack. More on that next time. See you then.
Next Time: TAKING CONTROL OVER PANIC