I want to share with my Readers this article by Barry Joe McDonagh, an International Panic Disorder Coach.
Causes of Panic Attacks
The short and obvious answer: panic attacks are caused by high
anxiety. But, what exactly is anxiety? Understanding how anxiety crops up will
help you defeat panic attacks.
One of the biggest myths surrounding anxiety is that it is harmful
and can lead to a number of various life-threatening conditions.
Definition of Anxiety
Anxiety is defined as a state of apprehension or fear resulting
from the anticipation of a real or imagined threat, event, or situation. It is
one of the most common human emotions experienced by people at some point in
However, most people who have never experienced a panic attack, or
extreme anxiety, fail to realize the terrifying nature of the experience.
Extreme dizziness, blurred vision, tingling and feelings of breathlessness—and
that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
When these sensations occur and people do not understand why, they
feel they have contracted an illness, or a serious mental condition. The threat
of losing complete control seems very real and naturally very terrifying.
Fight/Flight Response: One of the root causes of panic attacks?
I am 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.
The Physical Manifestations of a Panic Attack: Other pieces of the
puzzle to understand the causes of panic attacks. Nervousness and Chemical
When 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
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.
The 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
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. Think of them as one
of the physiological causes of panic attacks, if you will.
After 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
Not so convinced?
Try 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.
The 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 poor information.
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 action.
A 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 urgently
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.
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. 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.
A 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
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
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
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
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
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, 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.
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. 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.
This 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.
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
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
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 (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.
Barry McDonagh is an international panic disorder coach. His
informative site on all issues related to panic and anxiety attacks can be
found here: http://www.panicportal.com
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