How Panic Attacks Affect the Brain

When you feel like you can't catch your breath, your heart is pounding so hard you're sure everybody in the world can hear it, and you have this sinking feeling clawing inside you that you're dying; you're not in danger, you're experiencing a panic attack. A panic attack is an episode that suddenly occurs and makes you feel intense fear and can even trigger a severe physical reaction. Panic attacks often come on without warning and seemingly without cause. Even if you're doing a mundane task, a panic attack can come out of nowhere and give you a sense of painful and debilitating fear. Many people will experience one or more panic attacks during their lifetime and while they do pass relatively quickly, they do affect your mind and body.

Brain Basics: Know Your Brain 

The brain is the most complex part of the body, though it only weighs three pounds. It's the source of everything we use to define who we are, initiates movement, interprets our senses, and controls our intelligence and behavior. There are three basic parts of the brain: the forebrain, the midbrain, and the hindbrain. All have different responsibilities but work together to keep people moving. The forebrain is responsible for thinking, understanding language, controlling motor function, and receiving and processing sensory information. The hindbrain controls the body's heart rate, respiration, and other vital functions. The midbrain is responsible for sleeping, alertness, motor control, hearing, vision, temperature regulation, and acting as a relay station for visual and auditory information. Within the midbrain are the hippocampus, hypothalamus, thalamus, and amygdala. These are responsible for most of the emotional processing. People who have occasional anxiety or suffer from panic attacks will have heightened activity in the midbrain during times of unease. This heightened activity in the midbrain means you're more likely to feel multiple symptoms simultaneously during a panic attack. A panic attack suggests you'll feel at least four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Dizziness
  • A fear that you're dying
  • Feeling like you're choking
  • Feeling like you're losing control or going crazy
  • Nausea
  • Out-of-body sensation
  • Pounding heart
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Tingling hands, arms, feet, or legs
  • Trembling

Sometimes people mistake these symptoms for a medical emergency because the symptoms can be similar to a heart attack. However, panic attacks pass after several minutes and aren't life-threatening. While the symptoms pass relatively quickly, those who suffer from these attacks may feel exhausted and drained for hours afterward. This exhaustion is reminiscent of a hangover because panic attack symptoms tend to linger and leave the person feeling worse for wear.

Panic attack symptoms result from the body's "fight or flight" response. When you encounter an obvious threat, your body springs into action by sending adrenaline flooding your bloodstream. This process puts your body on high alert, causing your heart to beat faster and send more blood to your muscles, your blood sugar to spike, your breathing to quicken to take in more oxygen, and your senses to get sharper. It happens instantly and gives your body the energy necessary to fight the danger or flee it to avoid the attack. Panic attacks mimic the symptoms of a fight or flight response, but it often feels like it happens at random. However, research has shown that they may not come. The physical changes during a panic attack can start an hour before. One of these changes is rapid deep breathing that may begin as early as 45 minutes before the panic attack. This change contributes to that breathless feeling people often feel during their episodes.

Alongside the physical symptoms, researchers are still learning more about how panic attacks affect the brain. Some theories suggest the parts of the brain tied to fear are more active during these moments. People who experience panic tend to have a lot of activity in these brain areas. There may also be a link between panic and brain chemicals due to an imbalance of serotonin levels. Serotonin is a hormone that plays a key role in common body functions such as mood.

Managing a panic attack is possible. The most important thing to do during a panic attack is to control your breathing. You can do this by finding a place to get comfortable so you can concentrate on slowing your breathing and making it even. Start by inhaling through your nose for four seconds, hold it for two seconds, then exhale through your mouth for six seconds. As you do that, remind yourself that you're not in danger and the feeling will pass. Some people find that focusing on one object can reduce the other stimuli around them during a panic attack. Others use a grounding technique called the 5-4-3-2-1 method. This method suggests you look at five different items, listen for four sounds, touch three different objects, detect two distinct smells, and name one thing you can taste. Different methods work best for different people. So, if you suffer from panic attacks, determine what method helps you get through the episode best and stick with it.

If you're unsure whether you're having a panic attack or something more serious, always visit a healthcare professional to rule out other, more severe, health problems.

Additional Mental Health Resources 

  • Panic from A to Z: Learn more about what periodic panic attacks are, how they're identified, how long they last, their symptoms, and what can be done to prevent them.
  • Intermittent Anxiety: Anxiety has become some of the most common mental health diagnoses, especially among college students, but many people may not be getting diagnosed because they think they're just dealing with stress.
  • 60 Digital Resources for mental health: diagnostic tools, research portals, government organizations, nonprofits, blogs, and phone hotlines devoted to addressing mental health issues.
  • Anxiety: Scientific formulations regarding occasional anxiety.
  • Panic Attacks: This page has a brief overview of common questions people may ask when identifying and dealing with panic on a day-to-day basis.
  • Stress and Anxiety: Get a detailed overview of anxiety and how stress correlates with anxiety.
  • Why is Mental Health Important?: Mental health is as important as physical health for people, but for many, it falls by the wayside. Learning how to cope with and manage mental health can help people live more enjoyable lives.