Today seems like a good day to write about anxiety. It must be because I got 8 shots yesterday. Talk about anxiety producing! If you’ve never had an anxiety attack, or panic attack, I am truly happy for you. They’re awful. They’re terrifying.
I have had panic attacks for as long as I can remember. One thing I am truly grateful for in my professional training, however, is how much I have learned about them, and how to treat them.
First, let’s talk about what a panic attack actually is: an over-engagement of the sympathetic nervous system. Yep! Simple as that! But to break it down further…a very long time ago when we lived in caves, drew on walls with rocks, and were trying to figure out the whole fire thing, life was pretty dangerous. We got eaten by big animals a lot more frequently than we do now, despite what Shark Week may lead you to believe. Were it not for fight or flight, we'd have been snack food for lots of different bigger animals, and that would be it for the species. Human beings are also animals though, and our animal brains do wonderful things to protect us. This includes our fight or flight mechanism. We have 5 senses that are constantly taking in information. The information goes to our brain, and the brain decides what to do with it. Then the brain sends us into action. Some of these messages get delegated to the parasympathetic nervous system, which I can override. My leg itches? My brain tells my arm to move my hand, my hand to curl my fingers, and my fingers to scratch the itch. If I don’t stop the process, the itch will get scratched. I can, however, tell that part of my brain, “not now,” If I happen to be in a situation where I can’t reach down and scratch. I can choose not to do it. Then there are the things my brain tells my body to do that I don’t get to override. Remember the sympathetic nervous system from earlier? That’s where these end up. Some of these are great!! They tell my body to do things like breathe, and keep my heart beating. But when the message is I’M BEING THREATENED AND AM ABOUT TO DIE, everything goes into overdrive. My ability to feel pain goes down, my heart rate goes up, and I start breathing faster. All of these are to enable my body to fight off the threat, or to run really really fast to get away from that saber-toothed cat. What makes all of this possible is adrenaline. My brain floods my body with the stuff to make everything happen. So, there’s the mechanics. Senses take in information, brain decides it’s bad, sends adrenaline to make my body do what it needs to in order to survive. Somewhere is the last bajillion years, give or take, we stopped having to run away from big cats nearly as often in order to survive. Our brains, however, have not gotten the message. So information comes in, brain sends adrenaline, but there’s no need to run, nor fight to the death. Enter panic attack! The feeling of my heart racing, my thoughts going too fast, and panting for breath are all brought to me courtesy of my sympathetic nervous system. My brain has sent enough adrenaline to carry me through the threat. The thing is though, I don’t need to fight or fly so the adrenaline is all dressed up with nowhere to go, so it starts settling in. This doesn’t feel good, and it’s why our bodies feel the way they do when we’re having a panic attack, and for a little while after.
TL;DR: Panic attacks, and what happens during one, kept humans alive long enough for you to be here.
So why the anatomy lecture on a mental health blog? Because now that we know what’s causing the way we feel, we can be more effective at doing something about it. I’m going to pause here and break this up into two entries. Stay tuned for our next episode when our hero (that’s YOU!) will send the panic attack into oblivion and reign victorious once again!