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Causes of Panic Attacks


Panic attacks are essentially caused by high levels of anxiety. But, then what exactly is anxiety?

One of the common misinformation about anxiety is that it is harmful and can cause various life threatening conditions. Nothing could be further from the fact.

Anxiety is medically defined as a state of apprehension or fear caused by the anticipation of a real or imagined situation, event or threat.

Anxiety is universal and everyone experiences it at one point or the other in the course of their lives.

However, it is when the anxiety levels go beyond a persons ability or experience in dealing with it that it becomes a problem, characterized by repeated panic attacks.

Severe anxiety that leads to panic attacks is terrifyng at best and includes. among others, unusual sensations such as dizziness, tingling, blurred vision and breathlessness.

Most people have heard of the fight/flight response as one of the root causes of panic attacks.

As such, anxiety is a response to a danger or threat and all its resulktant effects are primarily concerned with either fighting from the danger or fleeing from it.

Thus, the sole purpose of anxiety is to protect the individual from harm. It is a in-built mechanism to protect us from danger.

When the brain is confronted with danger, it sends signals to a part of the nervous system responsible for gearing the body up for action and also for calming the body and restoring equilibrium.

To carry out these two important functions, the autonomic nervous system brings into play two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is the one we tend to know about because it pepares our body for action and readies us for fight or flight as the case may be.

The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, restores our system, returning our body to its normal state.

When 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.

The 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.

Over 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.

When 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.

The important aspect is that this system will come into action at some stage whether we will it or not because the body cannot continue in an ever-increasing spiral of anxiety. It reaches a point where it simply must kick in, relaxing the body.

You 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.

Cardiovascular Manifestations

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 action.

A fascinating feature of the fight or flight mechanism is that blood is brought to areas where it is urgently needed.

For 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 action.

This 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.

Respiratory Effects

One 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.

Nut, can a panic attack stop our breathing? No.

A panic attack is associated with an increase in the speed and depth of breathing. The feelings produced by this increase in breathing can include breathlessness, hyperventilation, choking sensation and pain and tightness in the chest.

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 one move 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.

Other Physical Effects of Panic Attacks:

Now 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 way harmful.

For 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.

The 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. 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.

If 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.

Experience of many individuals suffering panic attacks indicate that artificial light (such as computer monitors, TVs) can be one of the causes of panic attacks by triggering them or worsening htem, particularly if the person in question is feeling run down or tired.

In 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.

The burning question is: Why is the fight/flight response activated during a panic attack even when there is apparently nothing to be frightened of?

Upon 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.

For 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 attacks.

This 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.

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.

By Joe Barry McDonagh, Bestselling Author Of Panic Away




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