Episode Two: What is my brain doing whenever I’m feeling anxious or having a panic attack?
In this diagram of the human brain you can see an area called the limbic system. This includes a network sometimes referred to as the Fear Circuit or Threat System.
Now within this Fear Circuit, the amygdala is a structure that is responsible for matching a stimulus with an appropriate emotional response (for example, a bull in a field equals danger equals fear). The hippocampus acts as a sort of memory bank, helping us to recognise something that was dangerous in the past (for example, a traumatic memory of a earlier trip to the dentist). And the hypothalamus is involved in signalling the release of adrenaline.
Now, let’s go a little deeper!
The brain contains billions of neurons. These are nerve cells that carry information between the brain and other parts of the body. These neurons are separated from each other by tiny little spaces, called synapses. The information crosses these spaces with the help of certain message carriers called neurotransmitters. The neurotransmitter Adrenaline, stimulates or excites us, while Serotonin and GABA, calm us down when the danger has passed.
Now, for a variety of reasons, these neurotransmitters can sometimes get a bit out of balance. The belief then, is that our Fear Circuit can sometimes become overly-sensitive, a bit like a faulty house alarm that keeps going off. This over-sensitivity could be the result of a traumatic event - or maybe just a build-up of stress over time.
So, with Panic Disorder, certain places, certain situations, and even certain ordinary bodily sensations, cause our Fear Circuit, to act like an over-eager bodyguard and decide – superfast - that we are in trouble. It shoots out an alarm signal through those neurons, releasing adrenaline and causing the body to go into the Fight/Flight Response. Like lightning, this release of adrenaline is felt intensely and terrifyingly, throughout the whole body – an experience we label a panic attack.
Now the most important point here, is that you absolutely can, with proper support and guidance, re-train your emotional brain and re-balance those neuro-transmitters so that they don’t continue to over-react like a faulty alarm!