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What Causes an Anxiety and Panic Attack

Updated on August 10, 2013
Panic Ridden
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Physical causes of Anxiety and Panic

Before investigating the cause, first it is appropriate to explain how the body is designed to perceive and respond to ‘danger’. The body has a system in place called the sympathetic or ‘flight or fight’ response which is useful for survival. Remember, the design of the body is ancient and centuries ago the ‘flight or fight’ response was a necessary part of staying alive. So, imagine living in the ‘hunter-gatherer’ days when humans had to hunt for their food and also had to be wary of becoming food themselves. Living in this environment, humans were out hunting and were accosted by another tribe or a wild animal…the body’s first instinct is to set off the alarm which sends epinephrine and adrenaline through the body; the heart speeds up preparing the body for action; blood pressure rises as blood is shifted from the stomach area to the limbs so they have more strength; digestion slows and the body is ready to flee or to fight whichever is necessary. This response was literally vital in those days. Today the body behaves no differently in stressful situations, the difference today is that this ‘flight or fight’ response can be triggered by a variety of events that are not life threatening but perceived as ‘threatening’ by the human experiencing them.

What are the threats today that cause this response in the body then? There are blatantly threatening situations where the body will act appropriately such as being accosted by someone who intends to harm the body; however there are threats that are subjective and it can be dependent upon the type of individual experiencing them. Type ‘A’ personalities tend to have the most difficulty in this area since any situation that is beyond their control can be perceived as a ‘threat’. Embarrassing situations, the break-up of a relationship, and a flat tire can be considered ‘threats’ by some and cause a sympathetic response.

Example of How an Anxiety or Panic Attack can Occur

As an easy way to explain the process, here is an example of a simple situation that can become threatening through the body’s responses coupled with the brain’s perceptions of the situation:

You wake up and notice that it is two hours past the time you were to get up and get ready for work.

Brain: ‘Oh no! I’ve overslept… I will be late for work and get into trouble! ‘

Body: responds to the brains message of a possible threat and prepares the body accordingly…the ‘flight or fight’ response is in full swing.

In full panic, you rise and are showered dressed and in the car before you have had time to be fully awake. Proud that you pulled that off so quickly, you head to work. On the way, the body is feeling the after-effects of panic, as the body prepares to return to its normal state the body experiences immediate hormonal changes causing fatigue, irritability and even some emotion. Headaches and neck-aches are often an after-effect of an anxiety attack.

The Subconscious is the real Driver of our Perceptions

So in the example above, why would the brain consider being late for work a threat? Here is where it can get a bit more complicated. One possibility is that this individual has had difficulty with being chronically late in the past and has been threatened with termination upon the next incident. That ‘threat’ has been filed away in the subconscious so that when the alarm did not go off and the individual overslept, the brain remembered the threat and informed the body. Another possibility is that this person may have been raised in a home where being late for anything was absolutely unacceptable and this was woven into the fabric of the subconscious and the ‘threat’ then is ‘being late is unacceptable’.

This example may seem benign in light of individuals who suffer truly debilitating anxiety and panic but the principle is no different. Somewhere they have perceived a threat and the body is responding. Determining the threat can be somewhat difficult if it is deeply imbedded in the subconscious. The subconscious records every experience and certain past experiences, if traumatic or perceived as threatening, can be triggered by pictures, smells, actions and events that mirror the original threat. The brain and body is acting on behalf of survival and filing the memory away so that anything that resembles a prior threat can prompt the body to respond as before only quicker. When asking someone who suffers from constant anxiety and panic if they can trace back to the thought that triggered the response, often they are not able to because the triggering thought is not housed in the working mind but back in the subconscious and not as easily accessed without assistance.

Detoxification from Alcohol and other Drugs can cause Anxiety and Panic

In some cases anxiety and panic is caused by a physiological response when attempting to stop using a particularly addictive substance. Withdrawal from alcohol causes anxiety and panic which can be acutely severe, so severe that one may feel they are experiencing a stroke or heart attack. As part of the addiction process, the body has incorporated the chemicals into its routine functions. If the body is suddenly without these components, the brain sends out the signal that something is not right and the 'fight or flight' response is triggered. There is a very intricate reaction by the body during detoxification, click here to get more information. It is best for an individual to seek assistance with detoxification and treatment for the addiction prior to determining whether or not the problem is an anxiety disorder. Combining alcohol and anti-anxiety and sleep medications can be a deadly combination.

Lucinda Bassett's is a Great Source for Anxiety and Panic disorders

What are some Ways to Calm the Anxiety and Panic

There are a variety of ways to cope with and even overcome anxiety and panic attacks. One of the most common today is through the use of benzodiazepines. These substances can bring the body into a calmer state of mind so that the individual can be functional. The downside is that they provide only temporary relief and can be very addictive.

There are natural ways to overcome anxiety and panic if one is willing to do what it takes and to collaborate with their therapists, hypnotherapists and doctors. Taking a pill will relieve the symptoms but will not unplug the perceived threats hidden away in the mind. Therapists can provide help through walking the individual through the incident of cause and learning to perceive the old threat in a new way. Of course this should be done by licensed professionals only in circumstances where there has been sexual abuse, rape and PTSD.

Hypnotherapy is a good tool and there are some very competent hypnotherapists that can walk a person back to a particular trigger in order to reassess the situation from a current state of mind. Many old perceptions have been developed during childhood and unless an individual is aware of these archaic and outdated perceptions they cannot change their reaction to them. Many adults still carry perceptions that are childish in nature because they were developed when they were children. Believe it or not, some anxiety and panic can be caused by a perception developed at a very young age. For instance, one woman got stitches when she was three years old, the doctor had a pencil sitting on his ear and the smell of alcohol permeated the room. For many years every time this woman saw someone with a pencil on their ear, she would smell that room and that memory would surface. Her subconscious perceived the ‘man with the pencil on his ear’ as a threat and a ‘flight or fight’ response was triggered whenever there was an individual that resembled that man. As an adult, once she became aware of this, she no longer got a quick anxiety attack when someone with a pencil on their ear was around.

Begin the practice of calming the mind daily through meditation, reading, or listening to calming music. There are self-hypnosis CD’s available that are focused on the relief of anxiety and panic.


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