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A Moment of Science

No Need to Panic

Your heart is racing, your head spinning, your hands tingling. An overwhelming sense of despair and anguish hits you like a wave. What on earth is going on?

Scared woman curled up

Photo: Melissa Segal (flickr)

Panic attacks can be caused by stressful situations or can even occur for no reason at all

It’s an ordinary day. You may be entirely relaxed, settling down to watch some TV.

Suddenly you begin to feel scared. Everything around you is becoming unreal. Your heart is racing, your head spinning, your hands tingling. An overwhelming sense of despair and anguish hits you like a wave. What on earth is going on?

If you have had an experience like this, it’s possible you were having a “panic attack.” Some people experience panic attacks in tense situations, such as before giving a speech. For others it comes completely out of the blue. But panic attack is a very real condition, and not at all the same thing as just “getting flustered.” What causes it?

Panic attack begins in the oldest parts of our brain. Before we had evolved rational thought, we still needed to be able to survive in the world. The ability to either fight or flee from a dangerous situation is perhaps the most basic behavior required of any animal.

Panic attacks occur when the bodily systems responsible for dealing with dangerous situations kick in at the wrong time. There is no danger in relaxing on your couch, and no real danger in giving a speech. But in some people, the “fight or flight” responses can be triggered accidentally. Heart rate increases, breathing becomes shallow, adrenaline shoots to your arms. These are useful responses to have, if you really are in danger. For people with panic attack, though, they can be both confusing and terrifying.

Several different therapies now exist for panic attack, from anti-anxiety medications to behavior modification. So take heart –there’s no need to panic.

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