Panic Attacks – Why We Get Them

by | Mar 1, 2020 | Anxiety, Panic Attacks, PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder), Stress


Panic attacks can be caused by PTSD or trauma, but also they are traumatic in their own right. 

If you have ever suffered a panic attack then you will understand just how frightening they are. The thoughts that are racing through your mind at the time: Wondering if you’re having a heart attack. Feeling like you’re choking! Thinking you’re having a stroke. The sweating, trembling or shaking. These are just a few of the terrifying things that can occur when having a panic attack. Is it any wonder we’ll do anything to avoid having another one? 

In this article we explain what panic attacks are, how they happen and why the fear of them happening again causes our brains to look for signs we might have another one. We also give you all the information you need on what’s happening to you physically and why. PLUS there’s a useful breathing exercise that can help to lower your general anxiety levels and help in the event of an attack. 


So what is a panic attack?


Panic attacks are an episode of out of control anxiety that strikes without warning. There are a million different reasons someone will suffer an attack. However, the one thing they will share in common is that they happen because the person’s brain will be trying to keep them safe. 

Seemingly out of the blue

Many years ago my mum was very ill for quite some time. If you have experienced anything similar to this then you will know just how stressful this can be. The endless rounds of hospital visits, watching your loved one in pain or discomfort. And all the while feeling helpless to help them. Naturally it was a time of great stress. 

In the last few days of her life I sat in her room highly stressed, tired, sad, angry and a whole lot of other emotions. I was traumatised. My brain remembered this time and stored all of these thoughts, feelings and emotions away. Now since my brain would prefer that I didn’t ever feel like this again, it stored it away in my limbic system, which is the pattern matching area of the brain. As a result of this, if ever I found myself in a similar situation, even simply a similar smell, I pattern matched straight back to that stressful time and all the emotions I experienced the first time round came back with it. 

Get me out of here

This is exactly what happened 10 years on when I was taking someone to the same ward my mum was in.  As I walked along the corridor and got to a set of stairs, i just froze.  All of the old emotions that I’d felt at the time my mum passed away just came flooding back. My brain flatly refused to let me go through that again, which is why I froze, and I literally couldn’t move any further forward. This extreme reaction was a way to keep me safe, and I ran out of that hospital as fast as my legs would carry me. Fortunately I knew what was happening once I’d calmed down and was able to deal with it. 




As we have said, if you have had a panic attack then you’ll know that it’s often in itself a traumatic experience. The brain remembers and stores that experience away. It stores away how afraid you were when you were choking. It remembers the tightness in the chest when your thought you were having a heart attack. That awful feeling of hyperventilating is a engraved in your memory. No one wants to experience that ever again! 

But what happens if you have a panic attack in a supermarket? And you then decide that you can’t face going there again. Perhaps you avoid that particular supermarket and travel further away to a different one, only to have another panic attack in that one too. Now it feels as though all supermarkets or crowded places are dangerous. As a result maybe you start to shop in much smaller shops to avoid having another attack. But if you have another attack there you can find your world begins to get smaller and smaller as you go out less and less trying desperately to avoid having another panic attack. Each time your brain is adding new sights and sounds to the panic attack pattern. This is how agoraphobia (Literally, fear of the market place) can begin.


What’s really happening


The truth of the matter is though that the day you had your first panic attack you may have been highly emotional. Something just tipped you over the edge and was actually nothing to do with where you were at the time or who you were with. But your brain doesn’t see it like that. All the surrounding sounds, smells and sights in that immediate environment are stored away as a pattern that’s to be avoided at all costs. 

Understanding where the fear comes from

Sometimes out of nowhere the fear gets the better of us. We can be sitting on the sofa, nice and safe and warm just watching the TV and that awful feeling of dread in the belly or the weighty feeling in the chest area just won’t go away. Despite your best efforts the more you don’t want to feel like this the stronger the feeling gets. And before you know it your breathing becomes shallow and some of those panicky feelings are with you again. What on earth is going on? How can you feel this bad just at home watching TV? 

In essence, unconsciously, you’ve been sitting at home worrying about having a panic attack.  As humans our imagination is very powerful. Your brain doesn’t know whether what you’re worrying about is actually happening to you right now in this present moment, or if it’s in your imagination. Because it’s not sure and its job is to keep you safe, it turns on the (ANS) autonomic nervous system, or fight or flight response. You can actually keep these symptoms going on a low grade level for a long time without having a full blown panic attack. Generally full blown attacks will burn themselves out quite quickly. 

So on one hand the brain is doing a great job trying to keep us away from danger. But on the other hand it’s actually causing us to misuse our imaginations which is creating the panicky feelings and symptoms.


Physical Symptoms 


It may be helpful to explain some of the physical symptoms of panic attacks, how our bodies create them and why. We’ve put together a list of 13 physical symptoms which will help you to understand what’s going on. 

1. Palpitations or sensations of pounding heart

When we find ourselves in a situation that we perceive as a threat, our brains activate our autonomic nervous system (ANS), better known as the fight or flight response, readying our bodies for action; to fight or to flee, or we can also freeze.

Our heart automatically pumps faster to cope with the increased demands that will be made on it when we start running away or fighting.

2. Breathing rapidly 

As adults, we normally take between 12 and 20 breaths per minute. Again, if we are feeling like we are in danger, our ANS (autonomic nervous system) kicks in and we start to breathe more rapidly in order to take in more oxygen to increase our energy levels. This oxygen fuels the muscles we need to use to get us moving and shift us out of danger. 

3. Feeling that you can’t breathe 

Despite increased breaths, we can sometimes feel like we can’t get enough air. To explain this, it’s necessary to understand just how oxygen works in the body.

Oxygen is a very sticky molecule and, without the aid of a gas called carbon dioxide, it sticks too closely to the red blood cells that carry it around to the various tissues in our bodies. This means it can’t be readily released to be absorbed by the cells that need it. 

Normally, we breathe in the right amount of oxygen and, with the aid of carbon dioxide, this gets transferred to the body tissues. The carbon dioxide is then breathed out. But when the oxygen is breathed out almost straight away, as a result of sustained shallow breathing but no action (hyperventilation), it takes precious carbon dioxide with it that hasn’t done its job yet. This causes the levels of available carbon dioxide in our blood to fall. Without the carbon dioxide to help, the remaining oxygen sticks to the red blood cells and we feel we are oxygen starved, even though we are actually taking in plenty.

When we gasp or pant in an attempt to take in more air it unfortunately has the opposite effect, because then even more carbon dioxide gets breathed out and even less oxygen is distributed to the body cells. However, it should be noted that although you feel as if you are oxygen starved, the brain won’t let this oxygen deficiency become critical! 

4. Sharp chest pains

A very real experience that can be caused when you hyperventilate, as there is excess strain on your chest muscles.

5. Trembling or shaking 

The more you hyperventilate the more uncontrollable the trembling and shaking will be as the body tries to compensate for the lack of oxygen. 

6. Dizziness or feeling faint

Again, this is all down to the hyperventilation. The body is feeling weak and this causes us to feel faint. 

7. Sweating 

We are expecting to take some serious aerobic exercise to either run or fight, so our ANS (autonomic nervous system) releases sweat through ducts in our skin. As it moistens the surface of our body it then evaporates and cools us down and helps prevent us from over heating.

8. Tingling sensations or numbness

Blame the hyperventilation!

9. The body feeling weak

Once again the hyperventilation is to blame as the body is feeling exhausted.Oxygen starved muscles begin to feel weak. 

10. Difficulty speaking

Lack of oxygen causes us to feel sluggish and unable to get our brains to function in the way it normally would. 

11. Thinking you are dying

With the body’s alarm on full alert and all these escalating physical symptoms you’re experiencing, is it any wonder you think you’re dying when you don’t understand whats happening.

12. A feeling of being unreal

You might be thinking that this isn’t real, almost dream like. You might feel detached, like you’re having an out of body experience. Looking down on yourself, watching as you go through this awful experience, can make you feel as if you are going crazy. But feeling detached in this way is just the body’s natural defence, it’s attempting to calm you down.

13. Fear of losing control

The fight or flight response has now been turned to full and is ready to respond to the danger that you perceive. Many or all of the above physical symptoms are happening and you are ready to run or to fight. However, if you are at home sitting on the sofa and the threat is in your mind, all this energy has nowhere to go. Your body is shouting at you to fight or run but the battle in this case is in your mind. So you feel as if you are losing control, but this is a feeling, not a reality. 


If you suffer from panic attacks this information may mean you’re able to reassure yourself that you’re not in medical danger. With that clearer understanding comes the ability to reason and help the feelings of panic to pass quickly. Try this useful breathing technique too to help you relax.


7/11 Breathing Exercise


The 7/11 Breathing exercise is a useful and effective tool to help cut through the hyperventilation, by regulating your oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, and sending a message to the whole body system to calm down and relax. Download it hereNote: If you are hyperventilating or feeling very anxious use the technique shown for this. For this you initially take very sharp intakes of breath followed by a slower out breath until the breathing has calmed and returned to normal. 

Ideally you would do this as a general preventative, in the morning when you wake and just before sleep, so that it promotes an overall calming affect, making you less likely to suffer from attacks of anxiety, but it can also be done when you need it too!


Head on over to our website for more information on how the brain processes trauma, such as our useful download Traumatic Experiences and PTSD

I hope this has been helpful, and don’t forget to share this if you know anyone that might benefit from knowing more about this subject. 

Wishing you all the very best, 





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