Our body in a panic attack is at the mercy of the threatening thoughts that flood our mind. In fact, in an anxiety crisis the problem is not in the body but in the thoughts that we feed. Our organism is limited to responding in a coherent way to the danger signal that these thoughts have generated.
Understanding the consequences of a panic attack on the body is important, as research suggests that approximately 13% of people worldwide have already experienced an anxiety attack at least once. If this episode is not managed properly, it can end up becoming chronic, so that we will have panic attacks more and more frequently, a more common disorder after 30 years old.
Panic attacks are episodes of intense fear or apprehension. They occur when the mind negatively and threateningly interprets events that do not actually represent a potential danger. One theory suggests that it is a clumsy attempt of our brain to protect us from situations that cause us great discomfort. Therefore, the anxiety crisis would be, basically, a “distraction technique” of our mind that forces us to stop paying attention to the boss who is overwhelming us or to that crowd in which we feel asphyxiated.
These episodes occur suddenly and peak in about ten minutes, to resolve completely after half an hour. However, the physical symptoms of a panic attack can be so intense that they generate great fear as many people believe that they are having a heart attack, are suffocating or have completely lost their mind.
The brain, the place where everything begins
When we perceive a threat, our sympathetic nervous system ramps up, releasing energy and preparing the body for action. The parasympathetic nervous system then intervenes and the body stabilizes in a calmer state, that allows it to better assess the danger posed by the threat that concerns us. However, if the parasympathetic nervous system does not do its job well, we will remain in that state of alarm and excitement for longer than we should and suffer a panic attack.
Neurosciences have proven that during a panic attack some areas of the brain become hyperactive. One of these areas is the amygdala, which is the fear center in the brain, and the main one in charge of managing our behavior when we are in a situation of danger. The amygdala produces a real emotional hijacking. It assumes control and “disconnects” the frontal lobes, which are what allow us to think more clearly and rationally.
Neuroscientists at University College London have also appreciated that during a panic attack is activated an area of the midbrain, which controls our experience of pain, called the periaqueductal gray matter, an area that triggers the body’s defensive responses, such as paralyzing or running.
On the other hand, is also activated the hypothalamus, a small but very powerful area of the brain that sends a message to the pituitary gland to activate the adrenal glands. Thus, hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol begin to be released, which flood our body and trigger all the symptoms of a panic attack.
What happens to the body during a panic attack?
• The heart rate increases and we have palpitations
When adrenaline flows through our bloodstream, it puts our body on high alert. In fact, adrenaline levels in the body can double during a panic attack. The heartbeat speeds up to send more blood to the muscles in case we need to fight the threat or run away.
The problem is that this increase in heart rate usually ends up generating palpitations, a fast heartbeat that can lead to chest discomfort. That’s what makes us feel like we’re about to have a heart attack or pass out. It is generally one of the most scary symptoms of a panic attack.
• We sweat profusely
The same response that increases the heart rate is responsible for the excessive sweating that we can experience during an anxiety attack. This physical symptom of a panic attack is due to the adrenaline flowing through the bloodstream preparing the muscles for exertion, but it also causes the skin to perspire.
A study conducted at the State University of New York proposed a very interesting theory according to which, sweat during a panic attack, would be a warning sign and could indicate to other people the presence of imminent danger. These researchers found that people exposed to the odor of stress that someone else’s sweat emitted were more alert in all senses, a state that could help them detect a threat that they might otherwise have missed. In practice, sweating would be an ancient alarm mechanism that we grasp below the level of our consciousness and that we would share with the rest of the mammals.
• We breathe harder and become disoriented
The increased heart rate and blood flow to the extremities in a panic attack demand additional oxygen to keep all that blood oxygenated. That is the main reason why we begin to breathe with difficulty and we may feel short of breath when we have a panic attack.
The attempt to bring more oxygen to the blood causes us to hyperventilate, another of the physical symptoms of a panic attack that generates more discomfort and fear. Hyperventilation can cause confusion, disorientation, and dizziness because we breathe in so much carbon dioxide that our brain basically becomes overloaded with oxygen, making us feel dizzy.
Sometimes that feeling can affect the way we perceive our surroundings, which is why some people have the feeling that the world is literally falling on them. Also, as we begin to breathe through our mouth, another unpleasant result of the panic attack is that we end up with extremely dry mouth.
• Our pupils dilate
One of the physical symptoms in a panic attack, that often goes unnoticed, is the dilation of the pupils. As a general rule, this change occurs to allow more light to enter the eyes, which should improve our vision to protect us from the threat that concerns us.
However, it is not unusual that when people have an anxiety attack they experience the opposite reaction: blurred vision. This is because the eyes try too hard to stay focused, causing the peripheral vision to appear blurry. This restriction of the visual field, added to hyperventilation, ends up altering the perception of the environment, increasing dizziness and disorientation.
• Our digestive system slows down or stops working
When we are in danger, our brain decides in a matter of milliseconds which functions of the body are most important for survival. And digestion is not one of them. That is why during a panic attack digestion is almost completely interrupted.
When our brain thinks we are in danger, it sends signals to the enteric nervous system that regulates the function of the gastrointestinal tract, to slow down or even stop the digestive system. In this way, our body conserves as much energy as possible and prepares itself to face the potential threat. That is why many people may experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, or stomach cramps immediately after or during a panic attack.
What happens to the body after an anxiety attack?
The body after an anxiety attack will find a way to return to its basal levels, although it may take a little time before all physiological parameters return to normal. Normally, we catch our breath first and our heart rate slows down.
However, we can feel as if we have just been beaten as our bodies have been subjected to enormous strain. That is why it is normal that after a panic attack we feel extremely fatigued and without strength, physically and mentally.
Also, during a panic attack, the blood sugar levels skyrocket. We cannot forget that glucose is the main food for the brain and nervous system, and is also a quick source of the energy that we need to respond to the threat. However, the levels plummet after an anxiety attack.
Then we can suffer what is known as reactive hypoglycemia, which produces a drop in mood, leaving us completely exhausted and without spirits. Some people may even have trouble concentrating, lack of motor coordination, anxiety, tingling sensations, or crying after a panic attack.
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Rubin, D. et. Al. (2012) Second-hand stress: inhalation of stress sweat enhances neural response to neutral faces. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience; 7(2): 208–212.
Mobbs, D. et. Al. (2009) From Threat to Fear: The Neural Organization of Defensive Fear Systems in Humans. J Neurosci; 29(39): 12236–12243.