Panic Attacks and the Brain

Transcript of Neuro Nugget Video:

Panic attacks are one of the most frightening things that can happen to us, especially when we consider ourselves rational and intelligent human beings that are typically in control of our lives. The first time or even the first few times, we experience panic attacks, we feel like we’re dying while our brain scrambles to make sense out of something that really makes no sense at all. Understanding what happens in our brain and our bodies during panic attacks is a critical step in learning the skills to share a life with panic disorder.

It all starts with the brain. Since the brain is a control center for everything that happens in our bodies, it makes sense that it is also the focus for panic disorders. Now, the good news is that over the last few decades scientists have unlocked new truths about what happens in our brain during panic attacks. This leads to research and treatments that can help people decrease the frequency and intensity of these attacks. Now the bad news is, there is still so much that we do not know. We’re learning that there are many more parts of the brain involved than we first thought and genetics play a factor as well.

First of all, there’s the amygdala. Now the amygdala is still believed to be the primary player in panic attacks. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for our fight or flight response and emotional regulation. A well-functioning amygdala has kept us alive as a species. It stores memories of things that are harmful to help us avoid them in the future. It is the very response that has helped us develop survival skills that sets us up for susceptibility to panic attacks. Some of the other players. Well, the amygdala signals its brain partners to release chemicals to help our bodies respond to perceived danger. What ensues is sort of a cycle of signals across the brain, both chemical and physical that unleash a cascade that makes us susceptible to panic attacks. A part of the brainstem is triggered by sending nerve signals that increase the heart rate. blood pressure, and blood sugar.

Simultaneously, it is believed that the adrenal glands which are located on the top of each kidney release epinephrine and norepinephrine further stimulating the body’s stress response. Pupils dilate, digestion slows, heart and breathing rates increase, preparing our bodies for survival. But what happens next? Well, as our breathing quickens, we start to hyperventilate and this causes our body to retain more carbon dioxide resulting in feelings of lightheadedness and confusion. The thinking part of our brain that is still working, barely, begins questioning if we’re having a heart attack, if we’re getting enough oxygen, and whether or not we’re going to live through this.

All of these changes occur very quickly and are the biological basis for panic attacks. It is important to understand that it is very often out of our control. So what do we do with this information? Well, the same techniques that help us manage stress and anxiety can help us decrease the frequency and intensity of panic attacks. Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT can help us learn to practice with small anxiety triggers to train ourselves and our brain to begin to slow down the panic process. Remember that our amygdala contributes to the memory of dangerous situations and speeds up our responses. We can consciously plant new memories in our amygdala about things we previously perceived as dangerous to override the panic response.

We all experience anxiety and panic attacks differently. Working closely with the mental health professional can help us deepen our understanding of the brain’s processes and how we can influence them. Living life with anxiety and panic disorders is absolutely possible with the right tools and support. Want to learn more about your brain and how it functions? Call and schedule your brain map today.


Posted on

July 5, 2023