What Happens During A Panic Attack: Mental And Physical Responses
Updated July 07, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers
Panic attacks are always scary. However, they are even scarier if you don’t understand them.
The cause of panic attacks can be very personal. However, the biology behind them is the same.
Here, we’ll look at what happens during a panic attack and what you can do for shorter, more manageable panic attacks.
The Psychological Causes Of A Panic Attack
We usually associate panic attacks with anxiety. While people with anxiety can – and often do – experience panic attacks, panic attacks can happen to anybody.
A recurring theme in this article is that the psychological triggers for panic attacks for everyone can be very different. However, there are a few major causes.
Yes, anxiety can cause panic attacks.
People who have anxiety disorders may experience more stress in a given situation than someone else would. Any stressful situation may be more likely to trigger a panic attack, or they may have a panic attack because of something that they thought about – even if it wasn’t happening or isn’t likely to happen.
In fact, there’s a specific anxiety disorder associated with experiencing anxiety over the fear of panic attacks.
Autism Spectrum Disorders
A lot of people don’t connect Autism Spectrum Disorders with panic attacks. However, people with ASD often have trouble in situations that some people consider to be normal. For example, many people with ASD have difficulty with social situations.
However, there are other triggers, as well. Some people with ASD have trouble with loud noises, or when there are a lot of different sounds or smells in the same place, or even when they encounter different touch or pressure sensations.
Phobias are strong, irrational fears of a specific situation or idea.
For the most part, researchers don’t know what caused phobias. It used to be thought that phobias were the result of childhood trauma, but this makes the line between phobias and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – a condition related to anxiety – very thin. Further, some people with phobias don’t seem to have had a traumatic encounter – or any encounters – with the thing that they are afraid of.
People with phobias may have panic attacks in response to exposure – or even thought of – their specific fear.
While people with the above mental health conditions are at an increased risk for panic attacks, anyone can have a panic attack if they experience enough stress. Some situations are extremely stressful for anyone, such as being the victim of or witnessing a violent crime or a traffic collision.
The tendency to assume that panic attacks only happen to people with mental health conditions is much of the reason that some people without diagnosed mental health conditions mistake panic attacks for heart attacks and other problems.
The Psychological Responses To Panic Attacks
When you do have a panic attack, you might feel lightheaded. You might not be able to think straight, or the thoughts and ideas that you have might not make sense. You’ll almost certainly be scared.
While panic attacks are scary, there’s nothing to be afraid of. As we’ll see later in the article, panic attacks are frightening and uncomfortable, but they don’t come with health risks or complications.
During a panic attack, it can be hard to remind yourself that no one ever died during a panic attack and that the panic attack will eventually pass, no matter how bad it seems. But, if you can do that, it can keep the panic of a panic attack from making the situation worse.
The Physical Responses To Panic Attacks
The psychological causes of panic attacks – specific events or feelings – are different for everybody.
However, the common theme is that some stimulus convinces the mind that the body is in danger. When this happens, the body triggers the “Stress Response.” Commonly called “fight or flight,” this is a physiological process that prepares the body to run from or fight off threats.
The stress response is a bit of an evolutionary carryover. In our ancient ancestors, stressors were things that could kill them, and the stress response helped them to save themselves through physical exertion. Now, however, our stressors are more likely to be social or mental stresses.
No one ever fought off their taxes or outran their bosses. As a result, the stress response leaves us amped up with nowhere to run and no one to fight. But let’s break it down into the parts.
Heart Rate And Blood Pressure
When we exert ourselves, our muscles burn more energy, which means that they need more oxygen. That means that they need more blood. Your heart is always pumping, but there are a couple of things that your body can do to direct blood toward your muscles.
One of these is to increase the rate at which your heart beats, and the strength of each beat. This pumps more blood faster. You might not notice if you were running, but if you’re standing or sitting still, it can be uncomfortable and frightening. In fact, some people confuse panic attacks for heart attacks.
Another way for the body to direct blood to your muscles is to direct it away from your internal organs. This can lead to flushing skin, feeling warm, and other uncomfortable symptoms like queasiness and lightheadedness.
Breath Rate And Depth
In another attempt to get you more oxygen, your brain triggers your lungs to take faster, deeper breaths. This can be uncomfortable, but it can also change the balance of gasses in your blood, which can also lead to lightheadedness.
While you can’t control your heartrate, you have more control over your breath than you may realize. As we’ll see later in the article, that’s one of the ways that you can combat a panic attack.
What To Do When You Have A Panic Attack
There are elements of panic attacks that you can’t control. However, once you realize that you have a panic attack, there are things that you can do to make sure that the panic attacks that you do have are short and manageable.
Recognize The Situation
A recurring theme throughout this article is that, while frightening and uncomfortable, panic attacks aren’t dangerous. Recognizing that you have a panic attack can help you manage it further, but it can also be a great first step to calming yourself down.
Panic attacks and the mental health conditions that can cause them are often seen as weaknesses or taboo things to talk about in our society. However, if you realize that you’re having a panic attack, tell someone. This serves a number of ends for your good and theirs.
First, as we’ve mentioned, panic attacks can be mistaken for more serious health issues. If you exhibit signs of a panic attack and others don’t know that that’s what’s happening, they may mistake it for conditions like a heart attack or even an allergic reaction. You don’t want someone calling the ambulance over your panic attack.
Telling someone that you have a panic attack doesn’t just prevent them from doing the wrong things to help you; it allows them to do the right things to help you. When someone else knows that you have a panic attack, they can comfort you or try to help you manage the situation or even just get you away from the situation until it passes.
If you’re not with someone else when you have a panic attack, don’t be afraid to call someone and talk to them. It can be incredibly comforting just to have someone on the end of the line until your panic attack passes – even if they don’t know what to do or say to help you.
We touched down earlier on the fact that you have control over your breath. This is also true during a panic attack.
The things that you do fit into two camps: autonomic and somatic. Somatic functions are those that you need to think about to do, like throwing a baseball. Autonomic functions are those that you don’t need to think about, like your heart pumping.
Breathing happens to be both. That’s why you can breathe without thinking about it, or you can choose to breathe faster, slower, deeper, shallower, or even hold your breath.
When you have a panic attack, your autonomic system is controlling your breathing. You can overpower this by “belly breathing” – taking long, slow, deep breaths.
Your nervous system communicates with breathing both ways, so by choosing to take slow deep breaths, you send signals to that part of your brain that you can’t control to let it know that everything is okay.
What Happens After A Panic Attack?
What happens after a panic attack is almost as important as what happens during a panic attack. That’s particularly true if you don’t have panic attacks often, or if you recently had your first one.
For the most part, nothing happens after a panic attack. The individual gradually recovers, and they go on with life as normal, with no lasting consequences.
While panic attacks haven’t been linked to the likelihood of more severe conditions like heart health complications, chronic stress has been. If you had your panic attack because of an isolated event, like receiving bad news, you might never have a panic attack again.
However, if you feel that your panic attack was the result of a mental health condition like anxiety that could cause continued stress, consider talking to a mental health professional. You might also want to make a list of things that have caused panic attacks in the past so that you can help a mental health professional narrow down your triggers to get a prompt and accurate diagnosis if necessary.
For more information about how talking with a licensed and professional therapist or counselor can help you to manage panic attacks, have fewer of them, or just have less stress in your life, visit BetterHelp.
Take A Deep Breath
Hopefully, this article has helped you understand what causes panic attacks and what they mean for your mind and body.
Hopefully, it has also helped you to understand that while panic attacks aren’t your fault and they can be scary, there are steps that you can take to have fewer panic attacks and to have more control over those that you do have.