The Physiology of Anxiety and Panic Attacks

You would think after 65 million years we are far more different than our ancestors, Mr. and Mrs. Caveman.

Well, in reality, when it comes to fear response especially, not so much.

My patients often tell me about their anxiety symptoms and ask me: “I am going crazy, aren’t I?”

My response is often, no, not really, blame it on the Caveman.

During the Dark Ages, when Ms. Caveman was looking for food for her family, she needed to be extremely alert so she wouldn’t be food for a carnivore. So she needed to know if that shadow, just moved behind her back was indeed a bush but not a Carnotaurus.

Now, Imagine Ms. Abbey as she is lovingly weeding her garden, who is trying to figure out if the stick she just pulled is really a stick or a garden snake.

The first reflex is the Startle. It is a unique sensation, a gush of warm fluid washing all over you. Preparing you to fight or flight. The switch is ON!

Lets focus what is going on in your body. When that switch does turn on, your body will quickly react to DANGER!

Next the heart will start to beat really fast so it could deliver all the oxygen it needs to your muscles to fight or flight. At this point you are breathless, your heart is pounding and you need all that air in filled with oxygen to support your whole body. You will start to feel a sense of light headedness, as now is not a great time to have a philosophical moment, heck your life is in danger, you really don’t need much of thinking other than RUN! Or FIGHT!


When you are combating the enemy, what is the first thing to get punctured?

Yes, your hands or your feet, but why? Because those are the first points of defense that you instinctively employ to defend your body.  You will try to block your face with your hands or grab the weapon with your hands or kick the perpetuator. See the way our bodies are designed is truly amazing, so when it comes to protect you not to bleed to death, the blood will be taken away from your extremities and will be more focused on circulating in your muscles, again to fight or flight. So you will feel colder in your hands and feet-the lack of blood supply; numbness, a tingling feeling.

Some people will also experience stomachaches, or feeling nauseous as the body literally shuts down, no time for digestion, good thinking!

These are actually all good news. Your body is doing EXACTLY what it is supposed to do; to protect you and prepare you for a real danger. But the thing with anxiety is that there is no REAL danger, unfortunately your body disagrees and your mind will believe what you or your body tells you to believe. You just need to tell a different story, that you are safe and “Houston, we really don’t have a problem.”

But more on that on my next blog. In the mean time, be mindful, let your body go through the process, remain calm and surrender. It WILL pass.


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