As anyone who's ever had a panic attack will tell you, the experience is a sudden, all-encompassing physical and emotional feeling of terror. Even for the seasoned panic attack sufferer, it's not unusual to feel as if you're dying or having a heart attack — even though there's really nothing deadly happening. So why does your body seem to think it makes sense to have such an intense reaction?
Essentially, your nervous system has been thrown out of whack. The sympathetic nervous system — the one in charge of regulating your fight-or-flight responses — is set off into high gear, explains Scientific American. That means your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes quicker, and your digestion slows in order to send resources elsewhere.
Under normal circumstances, the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the rest-and-digest responses) balances you out, and both systems are active at all times. But when you're really freaked out, the sympathetic response takes over — and the parasympathetic response isn't able to cancel it out for a little while, even though there's no obvious danger.
Panic attacks usually come to a peak within 10 minutes and then gradually subside when your parasympathetic system can restore some balance. The whole episode generally lasts between 15 and 30 minutes, but can leave you feeling fatigued physically and drained emotionally.
Normally these sorts of physical responses are saved for the truly terrifying moments of our lives when we need to focus all of our energy on staying alive (e.g. the overused example of running from a bear). But, in the case of a panic attack, there's not necessarily a literal or figurative bear. Instead, the trigger is something that makes you anxious but isn't actually dangerous, such as attending your high school reunion, tackling the ever-growing mountain of your inbox, or gearing up to have an emotionally charged conversation with your partner. Sometimes, the trigger may be a physical sensation, or it might not be easily identifiable at all.
So why do some people get panic attacks in these non-life-threatening situations? Researchers are still trying to figure that out. But current theories suggest that changes in the functioning of areas of your brain's limbic system, such as the amygdala, may be heavily involved. These areas are involved in regulating emotional responses and connecting them to our physical experiences. For instance, this is the system that's activated when you feel sad or angry after bumping your dumb knee on the dumb coffee table every dumb morning. (FYI, you don't have to have a disorder to have panic attacks, but they are more common among people with anxiety. And if you have them often enough, you may qualify for panic disorder. If you're concerned about your panic attacks, it's smart to talk to a doctor or therapist.)
Of course, knowing what's happening when you get a panic attack won't stop them from happening. But it will hopefully make it a little less startling the next time you get one.
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.