Reattributing Causes of Panic
Adrenaline has many triggers—Studying them helps stop my jitters.
A surge of adrenaline produces all symptoms of panic and anxiety. But, you may wonder, what causes the surge of adrenaline? Whether your symptoms started all at once or developed gradually, you can reattribute their source to one or more of the following factors:
Your physical predisposition: Each person has his or her own unique chemical balance. Research shows that people who suffer from panic have other family members with the same problem. This suggests that they may inherit a body chemistry that makes them prone to anxiety. People with a sensitive temperament have low levels of the neurotransmitter GABA that inhibits reactions of the nervous system. When people have too little GABA, they are on alert, overreact, and have difficulty calming down. Sensitive people can be nervous, cautious, and shy and may abuse substances (such as alcohol) that increase levels of GABA. By contrast, people who “go crazy” or have psychotic breaks have a completely different chemical balance. They may have high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine and low levels of MAO.2 Worry and panic will make you feel miserable but cannot drive you crazy.
Stress: Pronounced anxiety often occurs first during a period of high physical or emotional stress. Physical conditions such as broken bones, long illness, operations, and strenuous dieting can “shock” the nervous system. Constant conflict, doing things you dread, or trying to accomplish too much in too little time places demands on the body. Under such conditions, the nervous system is persistently alerted and nerves “fire” all the time. During this state of sensitization, usual emotional responses are intensified. Ordinary fears feel like panic. Old conflicts rise to the surface. Typical ways of coping may no longer work. Once you become sensitized, the condition often perpetuates itself unless you understand what is happening. Thus, people who are not sensitive by temperament can become sensitized during stressful times.
Past experience: Your upbringing and early experiences can give you personality characteristics that make you more vulnerable to the demands of life:
Both types of people approach life with a controlling attitude. They need to manage their surroundings and their own internal reactions in a way that reduces “danger,” “differentness”, or “failure.” Often, people who develop panic attacks have been very competent or outgoing, but can no longer live up to their own standards in the face of overwhelming stress.
Emotional difficulties: When emotional disorders go untreated for long periods of time, they can lead to panic disorder. Often, people are not even aware that they have a problem until they start having anxiety attacks. They may think it is normal to be fearful of giving speeches, (obsessively) tidy, or moody.
A physical problem: Because panic feels so awful, sufferers imagine they have serious illnesses. Doctors can easily conduct tests to find out if dull, radiating chest pains are caused by heart disease. Other very rare conditions are also readily diagnosed: (1) epileptic seizures proceeded by an “aura” or strange aroma can cause attacks of immense fear; (2) strokes may be the cause anxiety if it is accompanied by confusion, difficulty speaking, or loss of movement; and (3) growths on the adrenal glands can cause anxiety during mild exercise, cold weather, or minor upsets. If any physical problem is present, it much more likely to be one of the following nonthreatening conditions. Seek diagnosis, get treatment, and reattribute anxiety to:
See Jeffrey M. Schwartz’s “4-R’s of recovery” for OCD found in Brain Lock (HarperCollins, 1996).
See Mastering Your Mood by Melvyn Kinder (Simon & Schuster, 1995).