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Awareness Magazine
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Dealing with Panic & Anxiety Attacks

By Alex Strande, MS, Ph.D.


Panic attacks are marked by a distinct period of intense fear or discomfort in which a group of four or more symptoms happen quickly and reach a peak within 10 minutes. Anxiety is probably the most basic of all emotions and most people have felt some form of anxiety during their life. Anxiety experiences can vary tremendously in their severity, from mild uneasiness to extreme terror and panic.

Anxiety is a response to perceived danger. Scientifically, immediate anxiety is termed the “fight/flight” response because all its effects are aimed at either fighting or fleeing danger. Anxiety manifests itself through three separate systems.

The mental system includes all feelings such as anxiety, nervousness and panic. The physical system includes physical symptoms such as sweating, palpitations, dizziness and breathlessness. The behavioral system includes activities such as pacing, foot tapping and avoiding situations that may make you nervous, such as public speaking.

When danger is perceived or anticipated the brain sends messages to the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS has two subsections: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is the fight-or-flight system that gets the body ready for action and the PNS restores the body back to its normal state.

Neuro-imaging techniques have provided evidence that the limbic system in the SNS governs emotional aspects of behavior, and that anticipation of emotional anxiety may stimulate the limbic system which in turn sends excitatory input to the inspiratory area to increase the rate and depth of breathing.

The two areas of the limbic system in the brain most actively involved in stress and fear are the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala is directly connected to the visual cortex and allows us to jump out of the way when we see something dangerous. The hippocampus allows us to learn and remember. As a response to danger the amygdala immediately signals the adrenal glands to pump adrenaline into the blood, triggering the release of the stress hormone cortisol.

The hippocampus is hypersensitive to cortisol, and puts all our cognitive functions on the alert. Cortisol and other chemicals remain in the body until they are destroyed by chemicals from the PNS; we are then restored to a relaxed state. However, adrenalin and noradrenalin take some time to be destroyed, so even after the anxiety has subsided we can be left feeling jittery and anxious.

One theory on the cause of panic attacks is they are due to a buildup of stress hormones in the body. If there is a buildup of stress in the person’s life, and the stress has resulted in increased cortisol that has been chemically maintained in the body even after the stressor has gone, panic attacks can occur. High levels of cortisol in the body keep you hyper-alert.

The long-term impact of increased cortisol affects the sensitive hippocampal neurons in the brain, which start to shut down, causing the interlinking dendrites to start shrinking...meaning that they are unable to make necessary connections. A consequence of sustained cortisol is that you may start to forget things. It is believed that in some cases mental processes can become “frozen.”

Another theory is that for some people the pain or trauma of a past event may be too great, and the memory of it is disconnected from normal emotional processing which takes place in the hippocampus. The pain or trauma of the event is pushed from consciousness, but the emotions return in the form of a panic attack or post-traumatic stress syndrome. This theory explains why some sufferers can wake in the night with a panic attack or an attack can come on suddenly without the person being aware of having experienced any resurgence of their previous trauma.

High levels of cortisol also affect your serotonin levels. High serotonin levels are directly associated with depression, which explains why depression is a very common symptom in people suffering from stress or panic attacks, with one-third of people with panic disorder having previously experienced depression. The fastest way to cure panic attacks is the nourishing of your nerve system using liquid herbs.

Alex Strande, MS, Ph.D., is a Naturopath and a Microbiologist. His office is at 3017 Clairemont Dr., San Diego, CA 92117 and he can be contacted for questions and appointments at (619) 607-4211.He does face-to-face consultations. Visit: