Anxiety and Panic Attacks




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What is anxiety? Simply put, it is the body's response to a perceived threat. To understand anxiety and what to do about it you need to understand a bit about your body's physiology and response to stress or danger. So please bear with the following text before we get into the issue of how to deal with anxiety.

Remember, we are animals after all, and our bodies are adapted to physically survive in this world, just like every other animal is. One of the things the body needs to do in order to survive is to know how to deal with dangerous situations in the environment. Once upon a time when we were all hunter-gathers in the wild, we had to be able to survive against predators and other aggressors in the environment. So when we encountered something like a lion in our travels, we needed to know what to do to survive - fast!

So our bodies developed automatic reflexes to respond to such threats. We we have now come to popularly know these reflex"s as simply as the "fight or flight" response. Our bodies had to be able to prepare very quickly to be able to either fight or flee the lion or aggressor we encountered. In order to prepare to fight or flee, a number of things happen in the body. Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are excreted; the heart rate is increased; breathing becomes rapid; blood rushes from the vital organs and engorge the muscles in the extremities. We become mentally focussed and sensitized to the immediate environment. We are all set to fight or flee the threat.

This response is automatic and not something that is normally within our conscious control. It is a response that is under the jurisdiction of the sympathetic nervous system. For those not up on their physiology, our nervous system is divided into two broad categories - The sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The Parasympathetic system regulates areas of our bodies that are more under our conscious control and generally is connected to our muscular structure. So if we choose to move our arm, lift weights or talk, our muscles reposed to our brain's conscious desire to move our arm, lift weighs or talk, and we do so.

The sympathetic system on the other hand controls our generally involuntary bodily functions such as breathing, digestion, heartbeat, blood circulation, etc. It is the sympathetic system that is of most interest when it comes to anxiety - as well as anger.

The response you feel when you have anxiety - increased heart rate, shallow breathing, "butterflies in the stomach", sweaty palms, nervousness and jitteriness is etc - is the sympathetic nervous system kicking in. It is the body's response to a PERCEIVED threat. This is particularly pronounced in the case of panic attacks and phobic responses. This is when the sympathetic nervous system is really going into over-drive. The response is so great that people feel as though they are having a heart attack or going to pass out, or began to feel like a trapped animal.

The key word here is "perceived" threat. It is perception that determines whether the body responds to something as a threat and thus stimulates the sympathetic response. In other words, it doesn't matter if the threat is real or not, it is the mind that signals to the body that a threat exists. It is what the mind believes, not necessarily what is true that counts. The body does not distinguish between real, physical threat and a thought that something is a threat (i.e. an imagined threat). Furthermore, a threat is a threat. The body makes no distinction between types of threats. It responds to any threat the same way - no matter if the threat is one of physical safety, emotional safety or ego safety.

This then opens up a whole array of of threats that the body will respond to. Now that we are no longer hunter-gatherers running away from lions, we are sensitive to threats of the modern world. We respond to perceived threats to our security (like money, jobs and relationships), threats to our self-image, to our status, our possessions, our health … just about anything about us that can be threatened on any level. In our modern society, there are many things that we can fell threatened about, on many different levels. No wonder we are so susceptible to anxiety and panic attacks in this day and age - there are so many potential perceived threats in our environment.

However, because many of the threats in our environment aren't really physically DANGEROUS to our conscious minds, we often don't understand what we are actually anxious about. However, our bodies can be in a state of constant "threat response" - meaning that the slightest worry sets off the sympathetic response in our bodies (adrenaline surge, increase heart rate, blood from the brain and vital organs to the extremities (leading to feeling light-headed difficulty concentrating etc.), muscle tension etc.

If we are in a state of constant bombardment from subtle threats in our environment, our bodies can be in a state of constant physiological arousal (in the sympathetic system). It is as if our bodies are operating on overdrive - like a car constantly revving at 5000 rpm's or a pot that is constantly on the verge of boiling. An almost-boiling pot does not need a lot of extra heat to make it boil over. So it is with our bodies. If it is in a constant state of arousal, we can be susceptible to going into a state of anxiety with very little provocation. If we become OVERWHELMED with anxiety, we can develop a panic attack.

A panic attack occurs when our bodies go into full-fledge "flight-mode" through what is known as a "sympathetic discharge". It is like fully opening the taps on your sympathetic nervous system. Large amounts of adrenaline and cortisol are dumped into you system, leading to a sudden rapid heart-rate, hyperventilation, muscle tension, nausea, confusion, a strong urge to escape and an overall sense of extreme discomfort and possibly a tendency to faint. People who experience a panic attack for the first time often don't understand what is happening to them (especially if they do not recognize the cause of their anxiety) and may think they are having a heart-attack or experiencing some other sudden inexplicable illness.

So that is what anxiety and panic attacks are all about. The body's sympathetic nervous system's response to a perceived threat. Knowing this, the management of anxiety and panic attacks becomes relatively simple (though not necessarily easy!).

There are two parts to overcoming anxiety and panic attacks : Managing the sympathetic nervous system, and managing the thoughts that lead to perceptions of threat to the self.

The next section will discuss strategies for the above.