What exactly is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a physical and psychological phenomenon where your “fight-or-flight” response goes into “overdrive” or activates inappropriately.

This is how they were explained to me by my therapist, and thinking about it this way helps me (if you feel this is inaccurate or unhelpful, feel free to disregard it and find a way to understand panic attacks that works better for you):

Back when we were pre-humans or early-humans, we lived dangerous lives. A bear or a saber-toothed tiger or another scary thing could jump out and maul us while we were trying to go about our proto-human business. So we evolved — or, more accurately, cribbed from our previous evolutionary ancestors — ways to handle an oh-no-I’m-about-to-get-mauled situation.

When our brains identify a threat, they activate certain processes in our mind and body to help us not get mauled. Things happen like:

  • Our digestion slows so that we can divert energy to our muscles
  • Our muscles tense in preparation to fight or run away
  • Our five senses get laser-focused on the threat
  • Our heartbeat and breathing get faster
  • Our body gets sweaty and readjusts its temperature

Now, these are awesome when you’re trying to fight off or run from a tiger. But they’re also recognizable as the symptoms of stress in modern day life. While it’s great that our muscles know how to get us ready to survive a bear attack, constantly tense muscles are a common sign of tension and stress.

Slowing digestion for a short period while the body redirects energy to run or fight is great, but if the threat is not a bear but the anxiety of modern life, our body never gets the message to put things back the way they’re supposed to — which is why things like digestive issues, muscle pain, exhaustion, and even vision problems are typical consequences of anxiety.

So a process our body and mind developed to help us survive stopped being so useful when bears became less of a common threat. Plus, the part of our brain that triggers this process can, like anything else in our body, malfunction. People with anxiety or panic disorders may have a brain which is prone to false positives and so it keeps the mind and body in a constant “fight or flight” state.

A panic attack means that your brain and body went into “we are under threat” mode and reacted accordingly. Feelings of dread, fear, and panic are your brain responding to that assumed threat — it would be pretty deadly to be too relaxed in the face of an angry bear. Vomiting or nausea, seeing spots, struggling to breathe — these are all symptoms caused by your body trying to help you out, but being too enthusiastic or misguided in the process.


This article is part of the “So You Had A Panic Attack” resource guide. Go back to the SYHAPA index page