Panic attacks begin to make sense when we consider how our bodies physically respond when we are confronted with a real or perceived threat. For example, consider how your body would respond if you were out picking blackberries in the wilderness and you heard a branch snap. You might interpret the sound of a snapping branch as indicating that a predator, such as a grizzly bear or a cougar, is nearby.
What happens next is our bodies initiate the “fight or flight response,” a physical response that is designed to keep us alive. Our hearts pound so that oxygen and energy can be delivered to our large muscles – our arms and legs. We sweat to cool our bodies during the anticipated exertion. These physical reactions sound a lot like a panic attack, don’t they? The pounding heart? The sweating or trembling?
Just like the story of Little Albert in the post What triggers a panic Aatack, someone who has experienced a panic attack has paired a neutral stimulus, such as seeing a white rat, with an unconditioned stimulus, such as hearing a loud noise – or a branch snap. The body’s response is biologically programmed to keep us alive, as indicated by the pounding heart and sweating or trembling.
Read more about How psychologists diagnose and treat panic attacks and Triggers for panic attacks and How to stop a panic attack.
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Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta