What Causes A Panic Attack? The Minimalist Guide To A Very Nervous System

Monday, December 09, 2013 by Meg   •   Filed under Anxiety

The Nervous System is aptly named. One of it's main functions is to identify danger and get us to respond to it by making us super uncomfortable with anxiety and other "nervous" symptoms. Those anxious feelings and scary thoughts are the direct result of surges of hormones that are released in response to firing from either the sympathetic or parasympathetic system.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic are big words that describe two systems at work that are supposed to balance each other out. The sympathetic system revs us up in the face of danger while the parasympathetic system calms us down afterwards. Like coffee and Baileys. Or maybe warm milk and chocolate chip cookies. Cocaine and heroin.

Let's check out an illustration. Say you happen to be walking along the shore of a Florida delta feeling pretty chill and happy. Suddenly, out of the depths comes an alligator.

Sympathetic Time

Holy crap!

Before you even consciously register those words (or some other equally fitting expletive) your amygdala, or danger sensor, will trigger your sympathetic nervous system. It does this by encouraging a chain reaction that releases an onslaught of stress hormones. This increases your heart rate and breathing, and prepares you to get away one way or another. With adrenaline at an all time high, you use the burst of energy provided and blast that green punk in the head with a nearby log before leaping back to watch the retreat.

Crisis averted.


Parasympathetic Relaxation

Ahhhhh relief.

Getting back to your normal state of being after an attack or other such episode of danger is the job of the parasympathetic system. When the threat has passed (or slinks back out to sea as the case may be) the parasympathetic system helps purge those stress hormones and returns your heart rate to it's normal, pre-attack state. Shrinks call it baseline, I just call it mellow.

Unfortunately, many anxiety sufferers seem to have less ability to purge these stress hormones. Not only do many find themselves more sensitive to anxiety triggers, but they have less ability to calm down afterwards when the hormones stick around long past the time when they are useful. It's a shady game, but one that can be dealt with if we understand how the system works. Sympathetic heavy people may need less coffee, and more Baileys. Or more milk, less cookies. Who am I kidding: have the cookies too.

But whatever you do, don't mistake sarcasm for actual therapeutic advice.

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When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns