First of all, this isn’t going to be a discussion of how to build a fire. Uh no, this is a review of a fascinating physiological phenomenon that I consider a physical contributor to panic attacks and anxiety. And that’s because the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, is highly susceptible to the effects of kindling. Now, before we get to work I want to make sure you know that I’m going to be cramming thirty pounds of information into a five pound bag. Okay? Well, let’s get busy.

In the strictest sense, kindling is the term used for the generation of brain seizures by electrical stimulation. The pioneer of kindling, Canadian scientist Dr. Graham V. Goddard, believed kindling is a process of “message formulation” induced by repeated natural electrical stimulation of small and selected groups of brain cells. Now, scientists can also trigger these epileptic seizures in animals through repeated mild electrical stimulation of deep-brain structures. Curiously, as this electrical stimulation commences the effects are barely noticeable. However, sensitivity to the stimulation intensifies with repeated administration, ultimately leading to the animals seizing spontaneously. Yet, in spite of all this electrical zapping and seizure activity, physical damage to the brain is undetectable.

In the real-life world of brain physiology, chronic life-stress can generate kindling-like stimulation with accompanying mental, emotional, and physical manifestations. Drug abuse and withdrawal, particularly involving alcohol and cocaine, can as well. This expression of kindling is of great significance to depression and bipolar sufferers, as it appears to stimulate and exacerbate mood cycling both in the immediate and down the road. Indeed, a specific life-stressor may initiate the kindling process with no symptoms in the present, only to have expressions of mood cycling pop-up later in life without the influence of a specific stressor. Now, it’s important to note that research isn’t suggesting this is a matter of having actual epileptic seizures, as we traditionally know them. It’s more an issue of a similarity to the strictest definition of seizure-generating kindling we reviewed in the second paragraph.

Okay, let’s bring this kindling business to the panic and anxiety section of the stadium. Kindling can play a mean tune on our limbic system, in particular the amygdala. And this results in the generation of a whole lot of fear and anxiety. At the beginning of this discussion we talked about how electrical stimulation of the brains of laboratory animals generated barely noticeable seizures in the immediate. But, we also learned that the sensitivity to this electrical stimulation intensified with repeated applications, and the animals ultimately begin to seize without any stimulation whatsoever. Well, chronic over-stimulation of the amygdala, or any number of our forged neural highways, may lead to a hypersensitivity to fear-generating stimuli and a propensity toward hyperarousal. Doesn’t that make sense? I mean, consider the scientifically confirmed dynamics of neuroplasticity, the notion that neurons that frequently connect tend to establish long-term working relationships. Well, I believe kindling and neuroplasticity sit in the same section of the ballpark.

So, let’s consider a real-life example of kindling to bring the point home. I’ve written about our HPA axis and noradrenergic (having to do with the neurotransmitter and hormone norepinephrine) system in previous articles. As it applies here, let’s just say the end result of their work is the activation of our fight/flight response; and we become rough and ready to deal with the threat at hand. Well, research has noted that early life trauma may have something to say about how all of this works, and it’s thought to go like this. Someone who’s been exposed to such trauma develops a hypersensitive HPA axis and noradrenergic system due to their overuse so soon in life. It seems our bodies just weren’t designed to deal with excessive amounts of their secretions so early on. These secretions include cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.

So, as a result of being chronically overworked, these systems become super-sensitive and super-reactive to stress. And as the years go by, any exposure to stress, even in what would seem to be tolerable measures, only serves to agitate and exacerbate this already hypersensitive and exhausted stress response. Ultimately, one ends up attempting to live life as an adult with out-of-control biochemistry. And this goofiness well exceeds design tolerances, resulting in any number of physical, mental, and emotional outcomes; including panic and anxiety. Yes, in this case, early life trauma, and its snowballing biochemical fallout, actually alters neurophysiology in the immediate, as well as stimulating psychopathology in the future. That said, kindling must be considered a significant biological contributor to panic attacks and anxiety.

Author's Bio: 

After a winning bout with panic disorder, a career in the business world, and a part-time job working with socially challenged adolescents, Bill found his life's passion and work. So he earned his master's degree and counseling credentials, and is doing all he can to lend a hand to those having a tough time.

Bill has some powerful mentoring and service packages available on his website, which include his panic attack education and recovery eWorkbook, "Panic! ...and Poetic Justice." The eWorkbook is ready for immediate download. You'll also find a link on the website to Bill's "Panic Attack Freedom!" blog. Lots of good stuff going on and much more to come.

In addition to doing psychiatric emergency work, Bill continues to do a lot of writing and speaking. He's conducted numerous mental health workshops for non-profit organizations and remains available to present more. Bill is a national and local member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (N.A.M.I.).