The Science of Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Panic Attacks


Fears, phobias, anxiety and panic attacks are all related. The feelings, sometimes extreme feelings, people experience with these conditions are all caused by the release of adrenaline and in more acute cases cortisol and gluco-cortisol into the blood stream. These hormones cause the symptoms that sufferers experience during anxiety and panic attacks: raised heart-rate, shortness of breath, churning and dropping sensations in the stomach, weakness at the knees, light-headedness, sweats etc. However, unpleasant and sometimes frightening as these sensations are, they are not dangerous, but they can become debilitating if they are chronic and pervasive.

There is a biological reason for these feelings to be triggered. The release of adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream is controlled by a part of the brain called the Amygdala.

The Amygdala is controlled by the protector in the subconscious mind and is an ancient organ that can be seen in the brains of animals as far back as the dinosaurs. It’s job is to trigger the release of these hormones in response to threat or danger to get the body ready for ‘fight or flight’. The Amygdala is quite basic and stupid and tends to shoot first and ask questions later! For this reason, we call it the ‘Gunslinger’. However, although quick off the draw and operating on pure instinct, it is capable of learning.

The physical feelings people experience during a panic attack: heart pounding, chest heaving or tight, legs weak and wobbly, head light, and stomach nauseous… are unpleasant… But they are normal and they are designed to save your life. What is actually happening is that, in a split second, blood is re-directed from the brain and the stomach to the muscles (hence the light-headedness and nausea) and the heart and lungs start pumping harder to oxygenate the muscles, all to prepare the body for fight or flight.

Are the feelings themselves life-threatening? No, of course not. What biological or evolutionary purpose could be served by a person dropping dead at the first sign of danger?

Can they become so extreme that they might trigger a heart attack? Again, no. Adrenaline is used to treat heart-attack victims!

Is it possible that if these feelings were repeated several times a day, every day, as they are in the case of some extreme panic attack sufferers that they could induce madness?… No, there is no medical correlation between panic attacks and madness.

Once again, these symptoms are unpleasant, but they are normal and natural. When people suffer these feelings at inconvenient times as a response to panic attacks and phobias, they are still normal and natural, but they are troublesome.

Unfortunately for sufferers, the worst thing you can do for panic attacks and phobias is to treat the symptoms with drugs or, even worse, a trip to accident and emergency! This is simply teaching the Gunslinger (remember, the Gunslinger can learn) that the sufferer is in such danger that they need to take action. The best way to treat panic attacks is to teach the Gunslinger that there is no danger so that it downgrades the perceived danger threat the next time round and diminishes the response. You do this by minimising drama!

Doctors who specialise in treating panic attacks consider treating sufferers with drugs or creating any fuss as “abnormlising the normal” and will recommend forcing the Gunslinger to learn and to diminish its response through a process called “flooding”.  By not intervening when the sufferer has an attack, the sufferer is forced to experience the panic attack fully and to allow all the unpleasant feelings to flood over them until they subside naturally. This shows them, and critically, their Gunslinger, that nothing bad is going to happen to them and this in turn teaches the Gunslinger to downgrade the response the next time that same situation is encountered.

In hypnotherapy, we don’t need to put our clients through this. We can re-programme the subconscious mind and the Gunslinger to downgrade and modify their response in inappropriate situations, but more importantly, we can re-programme the original deep-seated programming that causes the sufferer to imagine they are in danger in the first place.

This is why advanced clinical hypnotherapy is such a powerful tool in the treatment of anxiety and phobias.

Author: Tim France
Date: October 2017

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