Anxiety is defined as the mental activity of worry about future events plus the resulting emotional and physical changes. Anxiety is normal. Without anxiety, we would have no warning or alarm system, and we would, as a result, be unprotected. In today’s world, anxiety and stress can come from a difficult situation at work or home, or from things like worries about failing. Before one stressor goes away, another may present itself. So stress and anxiety can build up.
Immediate anxiety is termed the fight or flight response. When faced with a danger, the response must be automatic and immediate to protect the individual.
Panic, like anxiety, is part of a normal, biological system that acts as an alarm. Panic is an immediate response to a real or perceived threat.
While the fight or flight response is critical to protect us in moments of extreme danger, when a person feels the fight or flight response at an inappropriate time, it is known as a Panic Attack and is characterized by sudden and unexpected periods of intense fear or discomfort associated with shortness of breath, dizziness, palpitations, nausea, or abdominal distress. During a panic attack people may believe that they are having a heart attack or stroke, that they are suffocating, or that they are losing their mind. Over 27 million people in the US suffer from panic attacks each year.
In addition, research has found that people with panic attacks are frightened of the actual physical sensations of the fight or flight response. When the brain cannot find any obvious danger, it turns its search inward and invents a danger such as “I am dying, losing control, etc.”, adding to the psychological burden of panic attacks.
Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder in which the person experiences recurring panic attacks and is concerned about having future attacks. More than 6 Million American adults are diagnosed annually with panic disorder.
Panic Disorder with or without agoraphobia can be a debilitating condition; if severe enough, an individual may even become housebound. Agoraphobia is defined as a fear of being in places where it is hard to escape, or where help might not be available and is often a consequence of having panic attacks or panic disorder.
For many people who suffer from Panic Disorder, there is a physiological component that can be addressed.
Research has shown that many people with Panic Disorder breathe in a way that makes them more likely to have a panic attack. They breathe this way all the time, not only during a panic attack.
The body needs oxygen (O2) in order to survive. When a person inhales, oxygen is taken into the lungs where it binds to hemoglobin molecules in the bloodstream. The hemoglobin carries the oxygen throughout the body where it is used by the body’s cells. The cells use oxygen in their energy reactions, subsequently producing the by-product, carbon dioxide (CO2) which, in turn, is released back to the blood, transported to the lungs, and exhaled into the air.
Hyperventilation is defined as taking rapid, deep breaths (resulting in lower than normal CO2) and is one of the primary physical manifestations of panic disorder. Some effects of hyperventilation are:
Chronic (ongoing) hyperventilation can be subtle and not obvious to an outside observer or even to the individual. However, because the individual’s CO2 levels are chronically low, the body loses its ability to cope with changes in CO2 so that even a slight change in breathing (e.g., through a yawn or deep breathing) may be enough to suddenly trigger panic symptoms. This was confirmed by research conducted at Stanford University, Boston University and Southern Methodist University and other research on the physiology of panic disorder over the past 10 years.