Our bodies are truly amazing at protecting us. Which is one reason people ask me “What happens to my body during an anxiety attack?” Let’s talk physical.

anxiety attack

I was parked on the street in front of a cute little bungalow about to meet my real estate agent one fine summer afternoon. We were scouting out homes for a pending move my husband and I had decided to make in an effort to downsize. I was just barely cracking open the car door when I saw a blue blur of a car race past me, ripping my driver side door right off the hinges as it went. Had I been swinging my legs to get out, they would have been gone, along with the car door.

In that instant, between seeing the blur and comprehending what had just happened, my body went into action. My pupils dilated to improve my vision. My peripheral vision sharpened to perceive the approaching car. My hearing became more acute to register any relevant sounds. My blood flow was redirected to my skeletal muscles to ready for a quick escape. My heart rate increased to pump enough blood to my vital organs. My blood pressure increased, and my breathing accelerated to aid my rapidly circulating blood so it could reach my organs. My muscles tensed–ready for life saving action. And my liver released sugar into my blood to provide the energy boost my muscles needed, and to power up my brain and heart.

And it was all automatic. I did not have to think it, will it, instruct it, order it, nor command it–to save my life–or at least my little short legs. My life was literally in the hands of my limbic system coordinating and directing all of the efforts of my mind and body in a split second.

These changes are all the normal responses of a healthy body in an emergent situation. So get on with it you may be thinking. What happens to my body during an anxiety attack? Anxiety attacks (panic attacks are another interchangeable term for anxiety attacks) are provoked when the brain is tricked into thinking that you are in danger. Your anxiety attacks are not identical to your body’s appropriate, healthy response in an emergency. When your brain is induced into expecting imminent danger, at times with no apparent signal, a “switch” is flipped in your amygdala that triggers a cascade of reactions that are your panic response. Most often it will fill you with thoughts and lightening quick interpretations, as well as emotional responses, of what the event means to you. Those physical reactions may include any or all of the following. And the more stuck you are in your panic disorder, the less likely you will even need an external cue to start an attack.

Your Panic Response

  • Your heart may start to beat more rapidly, even feeling as though it is pounding out of your chest
  • Your stomach feels really hinky, or nervous, or tightens, or feels knotted up
  • Your skin may start to feel hot, or you may begin sweating
  • Your breath may become slightly labored and shallow–as if you couldn’t catch a good breath
  • You get dry mouth
  • Your hands might feel cold, sweaty or numb
  • Your chest, neck or shoulders may feel tight since you have automatically tensed up
  • Your stomach muscles contract and blood flow to that area is decreased, making heartburn more likely

These are all exaggerations of a normal response.  You then begin to worry about your body’s response, and start to worry even more about the future, and this worry ignites and prolongs your discomfort. After a normal response, the brain instructs the body to shift back to equilibrium, or “normal” mode, however, anxiety lets these sensations linger. You are often exhausted after an attack, and the “fog” in your mind has trouble dissipating. It is hard to think clearly. Your mind may feel jumbled. You can conquer panic attacks. But you will have to adopt and truly believe the following three tenets.

Three Truths

  • You can trust that your body will perform, unconsciously, the necessary actions in a true emergency.
  • When your anxiety grabs hold, and flips your amygdala’s emergency switch, tricking you, it is possible to learn how to consciously TURN. IT. OFF.
  • With practice, and some coaching, you can consciously stop your anxiety attack before it starts.

If you are ready to learn how, I am here in your neighborhood and ready to help you do the work.