Fortunately, contrary to many myths, anxiety cannot harm you and it cannot lead to any life threatening conditions. It can and does make you feel bad, but cannot cause you physical harm. Though that doesn't really help when you're experiencing it.
What is Anxiety
Anxiety is one of the most common emotions that we humans experience, and it is an emotion that everyone at one point or another will experience. Therefore knowing what anxiety is beneficial. Medically defined anxiety is the feeling of apprehension or fear from a real or imagined event, situation or threat.
Unless you suffer from panic attacks then it is unlikely that you will understand the horrific nature of what extreme anxiety can do to you. Imagine feeling completely discombobulated from your surroundings, dizzy, blurred vision, tingling all over your body and feeling breathless and this is only the beginning.
When you go through these experiences, it's very easy to feel like you're losing control, which is a very scary feeling in itself. To make matters worse, you can't really understand why this happening to you, and whether or not you're actually experiencing a more serious medical condition like a heart attack.
The Fight or Flight Response: Is it one of the root causes of panic attacks?
You've no doubt heard of the "fight or flight" response - it's our inbuilt mechanism that determines whether we stand and fight on run away when confronted with a potentially dangerous situation. This response mechanism is also one of the root cause of panic attacks.
Anxiety, and the ensuing panic attack is a response to a real (or imagined) potentially dangerous situation - its main function is to protect us from danger. Quite ironic perhaps, seeing as the anxiety is actually making us feel very frightened.
Know that the anxiety that we feel during the fight or flight response was a necessity to the survival of our ancient ancestors- so that when they were faced with a danger their automatic response would kick in and force them into action. This is essential even today, and is very useful to us when we are faced with real threats and have a split second to respond.
Whenever we find ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation, the brain sends specific triggers to the nervous system. This system is responsible for gearing us up to take action (in this case to either fight or run), and the same system is also responsible for calming us down after the situation has been dealt with. To carry out these two vital functions, our nervous system has two subsections, the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system.
The main duty of the sympathetic system is to release adrenaline, this is the messenger in our body that keeps us going. The parasympathetic system then is called into action after a period of time to restore balance to the body once danger is gone. The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that gets us to calm down and relax.
Your Body Wants To Remain Calm
Whenever you use some form of "coping strategy" that you may have been taught for controlling your attacks, it's the parasympathetic system that you are calling into action. One thing worth remembering is that this system will always be brought into action at some point during your anxiety attacks whether you call it into action or not. It's a built in protection system we posses which helps us survive.
So next time you have a panic attack, try to remember that they cannot do you any physical harm. Your mind will undoubtedly make the sensations last much longer than your body would ever have intended, but sooner or later, everything will start to calm down again. I appreciate that's little comfort when experiencing an attack, having been there myself, but use it to reassure yourself.
Something you may find interesting about our in-built fight or flight system, is that your blood is channelled away from areas where it is not vital, and pumped into areas where it may be required urgently.
For example, should there be a physical attack, blood drains from the skin, fingers, and toes so that less blood is lost, and is moved to "active areas" such as the thighs and biceps to help the body prepare for action.
The moving of the blood from the fingers and toes is one of the reason that many people experience feelings of numbness during a panic attack. This can then be misinterpreted as a serious health problem that could lead to a heart attack. Talking to your doctor if you are concerned about this is the best advice so that they can check you out. This will help give you peace of mind.
The Respiratory Effects of Panic Attacks
From my own personal experience, one of the symptoms that frightened me the most was that I was going to suffocate, simply because I just couldn't get enough air into my lungs. It felt like someone had a strangle hold on my lungs - preventing me from getting deep enough breaths. Fortunately I'm still here to tell the story. And I'm pretty sure no one has ever been reported has having suffocated during an attack. So the good news is that a panic attack won't make you suffocate - your parasympathetic system will always kick in to calm you down again.
During a panic attack the rate at which we take a breath increases and those breaths are not as deep as they usually are. The rapid shallow breathing serves an important function as it gets more oxygen into our tissues so that they are prepared to act. This type of breathing though is often accompanied by feelings of breathlessness, hyperventilation or the feeling of choking and can also lead to chest pain and tightness.
On several occasions, during a panic attack I would feel like my body could no longer manage to breathe by itself, so I would take over and physically try to slow my breathing. This didn't work at all, as my body was still in control - it just didn't feel like it - so the end result was that I made myself even worse, as I was further restricting my oxygen intake.
The increased breathing can sometimes lead to other problems due to the lack of oxygen that is going to the head during the fight or flight response. These problems or side effects can include dizziness, blurred vision, hot flashes, confusion and a sense of altered reality.