Panic Attacks – Why We Have Them

Panic Attacks – Why We Have Them

To understand why we have panic attacks and where they come from, we need first to understand a little bit about how we evolved and, in particular, our fight-or-flight response. That ‘thing’ which, when we’re faced with a threat (e.g. predator), in a split second causes us to put up the fight of a lifetime or else run as fast as we can in the opposite direction. Kill or be killed. Or as Ruby Wax puts it in her book ‘Sane New World‘, “Have lunch or be lunch”.

Once upon a time a few millions of years ago…

Way back when, when life was simply a matter of surviving long enough to procreate and raise our young, we didn’t possess what we might reasonably describe as a ‘thinking brain’. We didn’t even have an imagination, for that matter; that came much later. All we had was a very primitive brain, albeit with a fancy name, the amygdala.

But it was enough – it served its purpose. It did ‘what it said on the tin’.

As creatures, we were not particularly protected of course. We were born without big nashers or jaws that could dislocate to devour prey twice our size. We didn’t have claws or protective skin like a rhino nor even the ability to change colour and blend in with our background. We were, in fact, pretty easy pickings.

Our weapon was our amygdala. Our survival depended on our ability to respond instantaneously at the first whiff of a threat – without even thinking –  and the amygdala helped us achieve this, by pressing our fight-or-flight button the nano second danger was perceived. This simple act turned us into creatures with super powers, primed for physical exertion.  Our heart pumped faster, our breathing became quicker and shallower to take in more oxygen. We found we could run faster than we had ever run, were stronger than we had ever been, our focus on the threat was heightened like never before. Blood was shunted around the body to the parts that needed it most (the large muscles of our arms and legs) and away from the parts of the body that needed it least (the digestive tract and extremities).  Clever old body.

The thing is, for anyone who suffers panic attacks today, the exact same physiological responses occur when they perceive a threat. This, my friends, is the beauty and drawback of the amygdala. Powerful but primitive.

Today in the supermarket…

Thankfully, for most of us, today’s threats and dangers bear no resemblance to the threats and dangers that early man faced. Today they are more about financial pressures, traffic jams, work pressures, disputes with neighbours, pressures on five year olds to do tests…So, substitute ‘sabre-toothed tiger’ for ‘angry boss’ for example; or ‘bear with paws the size of my head’ with ‘news that I’ve just been sacked’; or ‘pack of wolves’ with ‘can’t pay my mortgage’.  These are our modern day threats, and they are as much emotional as they are physical.

So a panic attack is just nature’s normal response to a perceived threat (emotional or physical). The event may not be life-threatening, but remember that the amygdala is primitive; it will never appear on ‘Mastermind’ – its talents lie in a strictly non-intellectual realm. It’s more brawn than brain. And so the alarm is raised releasing a cascade of overwhelming physical sensations:

  • palpitations or a pounding heart;
  • a tight chest;
  • a sense that you cannot take in enough breath;
  • feeling sick;
  • a dry mouth;
  • sweating and shaking;
  • dizzy and faint;
  • a sense that you are somehow disconnected from your body; and
  • not infrequently, a feeling that you are going to die.

The problem is that it is rarely appropriate or possible to fight or flee nowadays. There’s nowhere to run and no-one to fight. Today’s threats and dangers need a different approach. Marching into your boss’s office and landing a punch on his or her nose may well help diffuse your physical symptoms of stress, but I can pretty much guarantee it will bring you another set of problems.

So what can we do to manage panic attacks?

Let’s get some perspective here. In normal circumstances a panic attack will burn itself out in around two minutes. That’s 120 seconds. It’s not that I don’t think you can do the maths, I just wanted to emphasise what a short time it is.  On top of that, we do not choke, suffocate or die from panic attacks. It just feels that we might.  The answer lies in our breathing.

You will probably know that when we breathe, we breathe in a mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide. You will probably also know that our red blood cells transport oxygen around our body. What you may not know, is that oxygen, being a very ‘sticky’ molecule, needs carbon dioxide to stop it binding too closely to the red blood cells transporting it. Without the carbon dioxide, the oxygen cannot be properly released into the body tissues.

What happens when a panic attack strikes is that the individual breathes out almost as soon as they have breathed in, and in so doing, breathes out the carbon dioxide before it has had a chance to do its work. The net result is that the oxygen cannot be released into the body tissues (because it is too sticky, and its friend carbon dioxide isn’t around to give it the ‘heave-ho’), and this leaves us feeling oxygen-starved. Not good, is it?

So the oxygen-starved individual starts to gasp for air – which only exacerbates the problem.

In a nutshell, if you want to stop a panic attack, you have to:

  • remember that all the symptoms you are feeling are perfectly normal aspects of the body’s natural fight-or-flight response;
  • know that, left to its own devices, it would burn itself out in around two minutes anyway;
  • trust that the worst that could ever happen to you is that you faint, in which case your breathing would immediately return to normal; and then
  • find something to breathe into (the old paper bag trick) so that you can breathe back in the carbon dioxide your body needs to help you feel normal again.

How can hypnotherapy help?

So here’s the thing; the very first time that your amygdala created the feelings of panic within you (i.e. set in motion the fight-or-flight response), it was genuinely trying to protect you from something ‘bad’. So if, for example, a dog suddenly raced past you barking ferociously at another dog, and this gave you a fright, your amygdala would ‘black list’ (for want of a better word) ‘dog’ and ‘bark’ as things to be wary of. The next time you saw a dog or heard a bark, your amygdala might start to release those feelings of panic to warn you to steer clear. Think of it as a friendly prod. And each time that you listen to your amygdala, and keep away, so you send it the message that it has done a good job in warning you and it was right to do so.

And so this pattern continues. The amygdala loves patterns, but as we know, it’s not that bright, so it pattern matches badly to all sorts of random things. The next time may be, for example, a woman walking her dog by a stream. If your amygdala fires off the fight-or-flight response in that scenario, then in the future it may include a fear of streams or water too. So now it’s not just dogs or barks, but also streams, ponds, swimming pools and goodness knows what else. Fears typically get bigger not smaller. I’ve spoken to enough people who confirm this. What started as a fear of lifts, has turned into a fear of driving, flights, airports, staying at a friend’s overnight…

Anxiety and panic disorders tend to get bigger not smaller, because of how the amygdala works.

The programme of treatment offered by Sharp Minds Hypnotherapy adopts a three pronged approach:

  • Helping the client reduce their anxiety through relaxation and breathing techniques, and learning how to calm themselves at will
  • Helping them change how they think about things.
  • Identifying and releasing the original event that started it all off, by using a variety of advanced uncovering techniques.

The duration of the programme depends very much on the complexity of the problem. Straight forward fears can be dealt with in as little as just two sessions. However, more generalised anxiety and panic disorders may take six to eight. Some people can’t even leave the house. Others experience panic attacks while they’re sleeping as a result of their brain being highly aroused (due to anxiety) and interpreting small changes in their body as a sign of danger. These kinds of issues are not the so-called ‘quick fixes’ and are likely to fall into the six-eight session category.

However, all clients are required to attend a pre-consultation during which we discuss the presenting symptoms, history and establish your suitability for hypnotherapy.

The answer to why you experience panic attacks lies within you. There is always an event that has laid the foundation for it, and it is your thoughts that continue to give it life. There is a saying that anxiety is usually what you make it. If you have experienced a panic attack lasting more than two minutes then I can guarantee that you have achieved that all by yourself by panicking about panicking. By imagining the worst. We’ve all panicked about panic at some point! But if we can imagine the worst, then so too can we imagine the best.

You might have a good understanding about likely situations or places that can trigger an attack for you, or you might feel that your attacks come without warning and happen at random.

If you are suffering with panic attacks and would like to learn to control them and release yourself from the event that caused them, then please get in touch to discuss how I may be able to help free you from your panic attacks on 07807 054 706 or email me at for a no obligation consultation.


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