An anxiety attack or panic attack occurs when these normal responses occur suddenly in an extremely exaggerated way, especially when the situation does not seem to warrant it. Sometimes there is an obvious trigger, particularly something we are fearful of, but sometimes there is no obvious trigger, or the cause may be something physical that we are not even aware of.
Symptoms of panic attack can be psychological or physical or both. Psychological symptoms can include a feeling of impending doom or dread, intrusive thoughts, fear of losing control, going crazy or that life as you know it is over, feeling restless or agitated and unable to relax or stay calm. Physical symptoms include racing and/or pounding heart, feeling hot and/or cold, faintness or dizziness, shakiness or shivering, ‘butterflies’ in the tummy, nausea/vomiting, tightness in the throat, tingling hands, breathlessness, feeling of ‘air hunger’, feeling of vibration in the chest and many more. Hyperventilation is an abnormal breathing pattern that is often associated with anxiety and panic attacks. Rather than just a collection of symptoms, the attack can feel like an intense wave of doom sweeping over you, which may invoke feelings of helplessness and despair.
Panic attacks can even mimic heart attacks because hyperventilation can cause constriction of coronary arteries, giving people a sensation of tightness in the chest. People having panic attacks may call an ambulance or race to their local A&E clinic worried about their hearts. Doctors can run tests, such as an ECG, to determine whether there is a real heart problem or not. Also, sometimes the heart can beat in strange rhythms, when it feels as if there are missed beats or double beats. Some heart arrhythmias are dangerous and others are not, and again doctors can check these out to make sure. Many people have mild arrhythmias occasionally that are not dangerous and nothing to worry about.
Most of the symptoms of anxiety attacks are caused by the hormone adrenaline (otherwise known as epinephrine). The sympathetic nervous system communicates to the adrenal glands that adrenaline is needed and it is quickly secreted into the bloodstream and away it goes to every part of the body to do its work. Remember, we need to run from the threat to our safety, and so adrenaline stimulates our heart to pump harder and faster, and our breathing to increase, our blood vessels to route blood to our skeletal muscles to help us run faster. Our senses become more sensitive, our brain becomes more alert, our pupils dilate to allow more light in so that we can see better. Our bodies are preparing for extreme action. Our bodies can cope with these effects, and they do this normally in situations such as intense exercise at the gym or when running to catch the bus. When we are on the treadmill at the gym, a pounding heart feels quite normal and expected. But when we are just sitting at a desk, say, we are not expecting the thumping heart and it feels very strange and uncomfortable and it might even scare us.