Panic and anxiety attacks are sudden, relatively strong experiences that typically include symptoms like:
- A feeling of panic/anxiety/doom/fear of death
- Rapid heartbeat
- Chest pains
- Lightheadedness and shortness of breath / a sense you can’t breathe enough air (caused by hyperventilation)
Panic and anxiety attacks occur due to a type of issue involving our unconscious mind1, which I refer to as “unconscious malfunctions”.
A useful model to understand how anxiety and panic attacks function is as follows (panic and anxiety attacks function in a very similar way):
- Like anxiety, an extended build-up of unhealthy stress generally triggers our first panic or anxiety attack. The attack is a side-effect our unconscious mind’s attempts to help us (by getting us to fight, freeze or run away from a threat).
- When that first anxiety attack happens, our brain takes a ‘snapshot’ of the environment around us (like taking a photo, except it uses all five of our senses – and it’s ‘low resolution’).
In an attempt to keep us safe in future, it saves that snapshot as an “emergency situation”.
- The brain is always matching the world around us with similarities experiences in our memories. So some time later we might be somewhere that reminds the brain of that ‘snapshot’ it took before – and when it sees that similarity, thinks it’s an emergency again and it triggers another anxiety attack.
When this second attack occurs it takes a second snapshot, which becomes another “emergency situation”. Now, anything that it picks up in the new snapshot which wasn’t in the previous snapshot becomes additional triggers for another anxiety/panic attack.
- Later there’s a third attack and a third snapshot, and on and on. As this process continues the number of situations the brain considers “emergencies” increase, and the anxiety/panic attacks become generalised.
In this way the variety of situations that can trigger the anxiety or panic attacks can become ‘generalised’ over time, until there is no longer an obvious trigger for the attacks. It’s common for internal bodily sensations (like noticing our heartbeat) to become triggers for the attacks in the process.
(In rarer cases where anxiety or panic attacks become extremely generalised, the result can be a form of agoraphobia, developing to a point where someone doesn’t want to leave the house for fear of more anxiety and panic attacks.)
Many treatments seek to help a person cope with anxiety and panic attacks while they’re happening. But in addition, I highly recommend exploring brief therapies that seek to reprogram the brain’s behaviour, to reduce and stop the attacks occurring in the first place. Get my free download Overcome Anxiety & Stress by Changing How Your Mind Works to learn about this kind of reprogramming (and experience it for yourself).