“It’s all in your head.” This is an easy way for some to brush off the urgency of an anxiety attack. But to anybody experiencing one, anxiety attacks are a very, very real thing. In a very literal sense, yes, anxiety attacks are technically in your head. But not in the sense that they’re a result of exaggerating danger. In fact, disregarding the panic as something that’s simply imaginary does nothing to help fight it. So what exactly does science have to say about what’s happening in your head when an anxiety attack hits?
As it turns out, the parts of the brain responsible for fear and recognizing threats are simply backfiring on you. Here’s how.
First off, it’s important to know that nobody is impervious to panic attacks. Health experts say some people may only experience them once or twice in their lifetime while others are susceptible to them through anything from taking a big test to getting ready to ride a roller coaster. There’s a rush of emotions, your heart rate picks up pace, you’re sweaty, and you may even start to have vision problems amongst other physical changes. Even the Mayo clinic puts panic/anxiety attacks into terms that make it clear the phenomenon has a true physical impact on its victim, calling it “A sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you're losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.”
When we feel stressed, our nervous system starts to gear up, preparing itself for potential danger and preparing the body to take action. The parasympathetic nervous system, one of three divisions of the autonomic nervous system, steps in at this moment to stabilize all those hormones and calm you down. But when the parasympathetic nervous system isn’t able to do this, a person only continues to rev up with more energy and hormones in preparation of danger. Adrenaline, for example, is the very hormone produced to prepare your muscles for a fight or for running.
Or take those butterflies in your stomach that border on making you sick when anxiety gets really bad. What’s actually happening is the blood vessels in your digestive system are constricting so that more blood can be used in other parts of the body, effectively starting to shut itself down to help manage the perceived threat. It makes sense that your body would determine using your muscles is a tad more important in a dangerous moment than anything that can be happening in the digestive system.
So what’s happening during an anxiety attack is an overwhelming rush of hormones being sent or restricted through different parts of the body to fight off whatever threat may be around. The anxiety becomes unmanageable and turns into a full-fledged attack when all those signals aren’t controlled by the brain properly, sending you down that rabbit hole of anxiety.