Panic Attacks: Science, Symptoms & Shakes.

What are panic attacks? The science, symptoms and shakes behind one of the bodies most terrifying protective responses.

Panic attacks have become something I’ve become all too familiar with. In hindsight I’ve been experiencing them at varying degrees throughout my life, however, in the last year, they’ve become frequent and brutal. It was only when I was officially diagnosed with anxiety that I was able to put two and two together.

Of course, these were panic attacks! Why else would you be having this sort of response during uncomfortable situations? I look back and wonder how I could have been in such denial about the whole thing. It wasn’t until joining Twitter that I realised just how common these attacks were among others.

Today’s guest post is part one of two from an excellent mental health blogger; Spence (The Mindberg).

Panic Attacks;

By Spence (The Mindberg)

Many moons ago, I returned back to my studies at university after a short period away due to a very distressing time in my then relationship. I sat down in the lecture theatre and soon had an overwhelming sense that I must leave. I didn’t know what was going on for me, but things felt wrong; I felt wrong. It was as though the walls were coming in on me and I had a powerfully visceral sense that if I stayed in there things would become truly, truly awful.

I fled the room there and then.

I didn’t know what it was at the time, but what I had experienced was a panic attack.

What is a panic attack?

“A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. This may occur when there simply isn’t a perceivable danger/obvious trigger (an un-cued panic attack) or if there is something that is triggering to the individual eg someone with a severe fear of public speaking having a cued panic attack before presenting a talk.”

The Mayo Clinic

What do panic attacks feel like?

The NHS lists the symptoms of Panic Attack as:

The experience can be so powerful that some people fear that they are going to die. It really sums the experience up well; it is an Attack of Panic.

What is panic?

“To suddenly feel so worried or frightened that you cannot think or behave calmly or reasonably.”

Cambridge dictionary

Panic is an unpleasantly exaggerated yet normal human state of overwhelm in which the everyday processes of thought, reasoning plus physical and emotional wellbeing are compromised in response to the perceived enormity of the threatening experience.

Panic is a state that overtakes us, taking “us” (the thinking sense of Self we often experience ourselves to be) offline and out of our driving seat. So if “we” aren’t, who is in the driving seat (and are we nearly there yet)?

Fight or Flight:

The Fight-Flight-Freeze (FFF) response is a system in all of us humans that “takes charge” in moments of crisis and threat. But why?

It’s sole purpose is our individual SURVIVAL. It does it’s best at ensuring this by fundamentally taking charge of our bodies and our conscious focus, to get us ready to flee if we can (Flight), Fight if we must or Freeze if we have no other options.

We can break this down into two parts:

Brain Circuitry:

The parts of the brain responsible for this are (evolutionarily speaking), old compared to the newer thinking parts of the brain (Neo-cortex). In times of such threat, the older circuits override the Neo-cortex, diminishing our capacity for clear rational thinking, but replacing it with spontaneous, reactive action. In times of imminent danger, we don’t want to carefully ponder what to do, we just need to jump out of the way of that charging mammoth!

Body Readiness:

The physical body needs to play its part and is readied instantly for action by the nervous system and stress hormones. For example, in no particular order (not a complete list):

  • Your vision sharpens to spot the danger/ escape.
  • Blood is diverted to skeletal muscles to fight or flee.
  • Skeletal muscles tense ready for action.
  • Heartbeats faster and harder to get oxygen to those muscles.
  • The digestive system shuts down (non-essential at this point), so precious blood can go to muscles.
  • Airways widen and breathing rate increases to get more oxygen into the body.
  • Perspiration to keep muscles cool & operating optimally.

Ready to rock and roll!

However, what goes up must come down.

The FFF Hangover:

Not a comprehensive list, but a list nonetheless of potential side-effects, after-effects and by-products:

  • Visual blurring.
  • Skin looks pale and feels cold; may feel faint.
  • Muscles shaking, “feeling shakey”.
  • Heart palpitations/ racing heart.
  • Dry mouth, “butterflies” in stomach/ “tied in knots”. Constipation or diarrhoea before or after the event, possibly even incontinence during the event.
  • Hyperventilation- feeling “breathless”.
  • Sweating- possibly “cold sweats”.
  • Memory impacted.
  • Not feeling quite present/ real.

(In addition, individuals can feel a sense of confusion, guilt or shame over how “they” reacted in the heat of the moment because of the FFF reaction.)

This may sound unpleasant but it is a normal response to an abnormal/ extreme experience.

“Hello, hello, hello….what do we have here then?”

The detective-types among you may have noticed that are quite a few parallels between this list and the list of Panic Attack symptoms.

It would appear that the FFF system is implicitly involved in Panic Attacks. So, what’s going wrong with a system designed to keep us safe to cause Panic Attacks? Well, it all hinges on that role of the FFF and, most importantly, how it goes about it:

Fight-Flight-Freeze; Job Description:

The FFF response is there to keep you alive in the face of various threats. However, this is an old piece of kit (evolutionarily speaking) and is much more like a hammer than a surgeon’s scalpel. It basically doesn’t care if or when it gets it wrong by being too reactive- it doesn’t care if you are happy or not/ feeling anxious or panicky as long as you survive.

A useful evolutionarily-supported example might be when you’re walking through a wooded area, and you spot out of the corner of your eye a tree branch close to you by the path. Your FFF system may kick in as this branch has the potential to be a poisonous snake, a major hazard in the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. And so, you may jump/ run away, snap your eyes around to look directly at it and/or feel a surge of stress hormones in your body (to list but a few possibilities).

A potentially life-saving reaction the 1 time in 1000 or 10,000, for us more city-living folks, but the remaining 999 or 9,999 times, you may look a bit of a plonker/ feel embarrassed!

The FFF system doesn’t “care” about you looking like a right wally-herbert a.k.a. false positives, because if this system allows for a false negative (allowing you to nonchalantly step on a King Cobra), it has failed and your survival is at serious risk.

So this is a system that is “designed” to be overly reactive.

Introducing the Amygdala: Turn the dial up to 11!

The Amygdalae (1 on each side of the brain) are highly sensitive danger detecting regions- they are sometimes referred to as the “smoke detectors of the brain”. These are the gatekeeper for the FFF response going into full swing- it is key in the split-second designation of “threat” and us entering a state of alarm.

To further its importance in relation to Panic Attacks, the degree of reactivity/sensitivity of the Amygdala(e) can be increased by your levels of stress/ anxiety and any previous experience of crisis and trauma. Your general stress levels really play a key role.

In addition, what you think about and your “self-talk” (how you talk about yourself, to yourself) impacts this and how readily the system cascades into action.

“Spence is the founder, writer, caretaker, first-aider, rhythm guitar player and chief coffee maker over at, a blog devoted to mental health/ parenting/ psychology-esque stuff.

Endeavouring to post weekly (as long as my children let me), on interesting and supportive matters that connect with other mental health sufferers (aka human beings).”

Find The Mindberg on:

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59 thoughts on “Panic Attacks: Science, Symptoms & Shakes.

    1. Definitely better to have meds on hand just in case, but often I find that once one takes hold it’s all behavior that I need to work on, otherwise the meds are no good. But then I don’t have fast-acting meds, just ones that keep the anxiety at bay.

  1. Thanks for the information. We often don’t realise that we are under a panic attack. Although, it is quite common. Thanks if not frequently, many people suffer from panic attacks once in a while. Awareness about the matter is certainly helpful in helping the sufferers.

  2. Having suffered some form of panic attacks which are slowly getting more severe, this post is great for me as a reference source, Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you for this post. As someone who does not struggle with panic attacks often or at all it can be quite the challenge to help others. Understanding a bit more about panic attacks might help with helping others!

  3. As someone who suffers from panic attacks, I appreciate this post, knowing the signs and symptoms is important. The first time I had one I had chest pains so bad I thought it was a heart attack, not a fun ER visit.

    1. It’s terrifying! I just ignored it and put it down to the stress I was under at the time, also claiming it was my smoking that was causing it. But it was 100% a panic attack because I remember seeing ‘dots’ or ‘stars’ and shaking like a leaf.

      Thank you so much for stopping in and reading.

  4. Panic attacks are so scary! I’m lucky I haven’t had one in a while. Thanks, Spence, for sharing your wisdom!

  5. Thanks for sharing. I had been suffering from panic attacks for many years and just recently figured out what they were. I am sure there are many others suffering as well without any idea

    1. Thank you for stopping in and reading. I suffered for years without going to the doctor about it. I knew what they were, I knew that my anxiety was out of hand but I just was scared to put a label on it and get more medication to keep track of. Ultimately, when I went into treatment, I had no choice.

  6. I remember the first time I had a panic attack and the feelings of shame and guilt afterward for having made everyone think something was “wrong.” I’m happy this topic is becoming less taboo and people who suffer are not being shamed as much. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m pleased at the progress.

    1. They can be so, so scary. I tend to get them while driving which often means I have to pull onto the hard shoulder. They have calmed down significantly since I no longer drive as often and I’m on medication to lower my anxiety levels, but they remain in the background of certain situations waiting to appear.

      Thank you so much for reading. x

  7. Hi guys, I’m glad you’ve found this post useful- we thought it might be helpful to shine a little light on the subject to lessen the terror a bit.
    Thanks for reading and thanks to Chloe for this great opportunity.
    Peace and love,
    Spence 😁

  8. I have panic attacks quite frequently, and with my home situation I can start having a panic attack just hearing my mothers footsteps. Living with that terror is awful but I never knew that looking physically ill (sheet white and dark panda eyes) was linked to it as a part of the physical response.

    I have heard theories before that in Autistic people we have an overdeveloped amygdala but an under developed frontal cortex to rationalise the threat which is why it takes so much longer to analyse if a threat is real – and that the connection to turn off the amygdala isn’t so efficient either. Which is why we so often live in such a high level of stress, although I’m not sure if that theory has been discredited now that they decided they can’t diagnose via MRI (which I had been told when I started my wait for assessment).
    Then again I was told that there were abnormalities in the exact same areas of the brain by therapists when I was misdiagnosed with BPD. It’s one reason why I think the two conditions are linked.

    I love the science of why my brain doesn’t work the way I wish it did – I just wish I could remold it!

    1. I’ve always loved learning about different reasons why my mind is the way it is. I think a lot of my issues stem from the pituitary gland and the chaos it has caused over the years, but then it could just be speculation on my part.
      I had no idea about the amygdala being under-developed in those with Autisim. I would love to look more into this at some point 😀

      1. Nah wrong way – sorry – amygdala (FFF) is overdeveloped and frontal cortex underdeveloped. It’s a theory about why we process the world so differently and have such extreme fear reactions I guess.

        Even without panic attacks it is the amygdala that reacts first to every input, like the example of the tree branch and the snake, and then your frontal cortex analyses and finds in it’s data banks that it’s a tree branch and sends a message to a switch that deactivates the amygdala response for that moment. It happens so fast we’re unaware of it, until the switch doesn’t happen or our frontal cortex finds that the situation has been a threat in the past.

        For instance, right now my fight/flight/freeze response is going because the man is sitting too close to me, even though I know I’m safe in a cafe and that if he tries to touch me that the staff will clock him, my amygdala won’t turn off because in the past men sitting too close to me has been a threat and left behind trauma, so my frontal cortex is searching for previous occurrences and still going “danger danger”, but that’s a trauma response as well as having a big amygdala

  9. This is great information! I find that most people who suffer panic attacks suffer far more than necessary simply because no one talks about them and therefore we often aren’t familiar with the basics. Simply talking about it more openly can make a significant difference

    1. Opening up is the first step to bashing stigma, sadly we still have a long way to go. They are a horrible thing to experience and I remember having them while at my previous job and just having to run to the bathroom or get somewhere quiet. I knew what they were but wasn’t sure so I never called them by their name until recently, almost as if I needed a professional to label them for me despite having had them for years. I needed the external validation. Once I got diagnosed with anxiety and put on meds they have, thankfully, reduced but still very much there.

  10. Thank you for putting so many possible symptoms together. The more people know, the more they can recognized what is going on with themselves, or a loved one.

  11. I have had panic attack’s before and they are terrifying! Thankfully touch wood since being on medication they are less and I can deal with them a lot more easier. Thank you for sharing all this information! This can help so many suffers or educate people x

  12. Thank you for writing such a much-needed article that more people need to read. Panic attacks can also disguise themselves as ‘performance anxiety’ or ‘stage fright’ episodes as well. We share the same niche. Job well cone.

  13. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced a panic attack lately, but the anxiety is still there. Definitely need to work on it, the realization that I’m having a panic attack only makes it worse.

    1. Same. When I know that I’m having one or feel one coming on it makes it all the worse. The second part of this guest post will focus on what we can do to cope with them. Thank you so much for reading 😀

  14. This post is so important. Dealing with panic attacks is a common problem that not enough people are talking about! Keep writing x

  15. I only knew about me having the chest pains and difficulty controlling my breathing. I did nt know that my stomach issues could be a result of that too. Wow, I have been suffering from anxiety at such a young age and never had any idea. Thank you so much for this article it has helped me understand so much better.

    1. Thank you so much for reading. Spence did a great job on this one and the best thing is there is more information to come at the end of the month!

  16. I know panic attacks all too well; I’ve suffered with them since I was a child. It’s great that more people are talking about anxiety and mental health in general nowadays.

    1. I’m so sorry that you’ve been through these horrible things. They can be life-changing and can alter how we go about daily living. Thank you for stopping in and reading.

  17. A very neat run-down of all the symptoms! If anyone came to this in doubt, I do not doubt they would leave knowing exactly what they were facing. Denial seems to be the first stage of everything we encounter that comes across as negative to us, so I loved seeing your piece at the top. It reminded me what community does for us. 🙂

  18. This was such a well written and informative post! I’ve had panic attacks ever since I was a child. Thankfully they’ve mostly dissipated, but honestly, I still have them occasionally and it’s possibly one of the worst feelings in the world. But thank you for putting in the science behind them! Sometimes when you’re so in deep with a panic attack, you forget about the physical science behind it and sometimes focusing on that can help you get out of the panic. Really good post and I hope it’ll help a lot of people!

    Emily |

    1. Thank you so much for stopping in and reading. I’ve sorry you’ve had to suffer through horrible panic attacks. They are so life-altering and often misunderstood by society.

  19. I know this very well I think this is one of the worst thing about anxiety is the panic attacks they make you feel horrible and dread going out. Great post Thankyou for writing it cx

  20. I remember that during the high school period I suffered panic attacks even though it seemed that everything was going well … it was a latent agitation due to a heavy emotional stress.

    1. They can be horrible things that just seem to appear out of nowhere. But chances are we’re deeply stressed and in need of some down time.

  21. I have a lot of anxiety but never had a full fledge panic attack. They sound scary. Thanks for sharing this with us so we can understand what happens when people have panic attacks.

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