Words of Wellness: The mechanics of panic


Stepping from the brink of the cave, the woman moves rapidly to the brambles near the cave entrance where she remembers the blackberries. She feels a twinge of fear at having forgotten her spear but the thought of the blackberries override it as she hurries to the berries. The woman draws near the brambles and thinking of the forgotten spear she stoops and takes up a stone. Coming to the edge of the brambles she sets down the stone and begins picking and eating the berries as fast as she can.

So caught up in the gathering and eating is she that she fails to notice a slight stirring of the blackberry canes at the edge of the patch. In an instant three things happen simultaneously. She notices a strong musky odor, and the bushes burst apart as a large bear charges.

The woman is frozen for an instant as her pulse rate soars from 80 beats per minute to a pounding 130. Her breathing is instantly rapid and high in her lungs causing her neck, shoulder and back muscles to tense dramatically. Thus readied for action, the woman’s eyes send a threat message to her limbic system, making an instant impression upon her amygdala deep in her brain. The transformation completes its cycle as a powerful rush of adrenalin courses into her blood stream. This happens in a 50th of a second.

Without thinking, the woman picks up the stone and hurling it at the bear she turns and runs faster than she has ever moved in her life. The stone was thrown with force, striking the bear in the eye. Blinded by a sharp edge, the bear stumbles, pauses and resumes the chase. Alerted by the woman’s screaming, the others of her family, feeling the same surge of adrenaline, run to assist. This time the woman survives to hunt and gather again. Later, safe in the cave, the bear having been driven away, she interacts at the cooking fire with the other women, seemingly nonplussed by her near-death.

Sound preposterous? “That’s got nothing to do with me,” you might think. What is presented in this fictional “ancient case history” is not so foreign to us at all. In fact, many of us experience much the same autonomic reaction to perceived “danger” or stressors in our daily life. Many people suffer from debilitating panic disorders, the main symptomatic features of which are described above.

The cave woman was lucky: her danger was quite real, and although it brought reactions to her at a very primitive level, because the danger was averted by her quick reactions and the reactions of her family of hunter-gatherers, she was able to effectively dissipate the adrenaline in her body and return to a state of homeostasis much quicker than most of her modern-day counterparts.

In our world, disasters, violent crime and other stressors create situations in which the same panic symptoms occur. In addition to those very real threats, our “flight or fight” reactions respond equally effectively at times to perceived dangers, i.e. dangers that may not be real and present, but felt nonetheless. It is important to realize that the mechanics are the same.

When the amygdala is activated, the “flight or fight” response is given the green light. This happens unconsciously, without reason or logic. The pulse rate goes up dramatically, the respiration increases as the muscles of the neck, chest, shoulders and back contract strongly, and the surge of adrenaline pumps through the body. This causes a closed loop to be put in place. In other words, the adrenaline keeps the pulse rate up, which keeps the respiration rate up, which keeps the muscles tense, which keeps producing adrenaline, which – get the picture? The problem with this, which in effect renders this wonderful survival mechanism ineffective and counterproductive, is that without a tangible source of danger that can be overcome, the automatic responses achieve no resolution within a reasonable time frame. This instills in us a dread of the situation that increases each time it is experienced, whether it is test-taking anxiety, anxiety about social situations, or even a full- blown phobia. The instillation of this dread sets the stage for recurring panic reactions in similar situations. That is the bad news.

The good news is that this action/reaction that triggers the autonomic nervous system can be interrupted, or short-circuited. If you can picture the amygdala as the “panic button,” it can help very much to realize that the “panic button” can be reset.

The Counseling Center is presenting a Mindfullness Group for detailed training on maintaining a “non-panic” lifestyle. Come check it out! Call extension 1265 for information.