Fear & Anxiety in the Brain (What Causes Panic Attacks)

Fear and anxiety in the brain (What Causes Panic Attacks)

Panic attacks can be categorised into 2 areas -

•The non-phobic panic attack that seems to come out of the blue (the spontaneous panic attack)

•The triggered panic attack

fearThe non-phobic panic attack tends to come out of the blue, or so the person believes, but there is often a trigger.   This could be stress, diet, thoughts, etc.  The brain usually has been stimulated by being over sensitized by a trigger which is not obvious.  It leads to us feeling unable to breath, impending doom, heart palpitation, suffocation feelings, etc.   There is also a theory called the suffocation alarm theory which suggests the brain is triggering a panic attack.  Let me explain……..

As you probably know when we exhale carbon dioxide is produced.  Our brains via neurons in our solitary nucleus are forever monitoring the blood circulating in our brains for levels of carbon dioxide (CO2).    These neurons will activate if they sense a drop in CO2.  This will cause the feeling of being unable to breathe properly.  In this case your body is saying I really need to take over and make you breath as CO2 has dropped.  As a panic attack sufferer I often felt my breathing go haywire, and feel like I was not getting enough oxygen and try to breathe more.  After this process, the locus coeruleus is essentially sent a message.  But what is the locus coeruleus?

The hypothalamus is the main fear centre of the brain and has been traditionally known as the bodies sentry and alerts us using various sensations to warn us of danger.  The locus coeruleus is a lot smaller than the hypothalamus but virtually all the bodily functions are linked to it including the hypothalamus.

ElectricResearch has shown that if the locus coeruleus is electrically shocked a panic attack can be induced.  So it may be that the locus coeruleus is the first button to be pushed in the brain to fire off the flight or fight response.  Whether it’s the locus coeruleus or the hypothalamus (or both) the same process is happening – a burst of electricity is being triggered within the brain. fear and anxiety in the brain

The EEG (Electroencephalography) measures voltage fluctuations resulting from ionic current flows within the neurons of the brain.  However it’s not sensitive enough to pick up electrical activity deep inside the brain.  I don’t want to get too deep into the technical science stuff as to fellow panic attacks sufferers all we feel is all the nasty symptoms of racing heart,  headaches, confusion, etc.  It doesn’t really matter to us what is calling the shots.

Opiate Receptors

Further studies of the locus coeruleus have shown that they have high number of opiate receptors.  You may ask what is an opiate receptor?

They are a type of protein found in the brain, digestive system and spinal cord.  Opiates activate the receptors once they reach the brain, which they tend to do quite quickly.  Any effect on the brain directly correlates with what has been stimulated.  Opiates facilitate the feel good centre of the brain and help stop pain.  This is why you often hear about drug addicts injecting heroin (an opiate) into their bloodstream.   

Once the heroin gets into contact with the brain, its changes to morphine which stimulates the receptors.    Research shows that once the opiate receptors are stimulated by heroin and other drugs there is a feeling of a great satisfaction.  There is also a feeling of euphoria as large amounts of dopamine are released.  After the initial rush there is a state of calm and relaxation which can last for many hours.  You can see now why heroin is so addictive!


The mystery to scientists was how did the human body know man would inject himself with heroin to get the rush of euphoria, or was there some naturally occurring chemical in the body with the same the structure, which was doing the same job.  Eventually they found it and called the chemical endorphin.

Endorphins are great for us.  The diminish pain and anxiety, help promote our immune system and ability to withstand stress, and help us feel pleasure more easily.  Endorphins and opiate receptors are like peas in a pod, the fit together perfectly to inhibit panic and fear.

After scientist discovered the fear centre in the brain and that this centre had opiate receptors, it was a great breakthrough.   By knowing this we can tackle the fear factor in our brains.  

So if we can increase the endorphins in our brains we stand a good chance of lowering the fear response to events in our life. 

Locus Coeruleus

Lets go back to the out of the blue panic attacks, when the locus coeruleus has been aroused and symptoms of panic occur.  When we feel fear and the need to escape, our respiratory rate increases.  Hyperventilation can kick in making sure we breathe faster taking in more oxygen.  This can occur when our respiration system slows down or CO2 builds up if we exercise.   Thus it’s possible that panic attacks can occur during sleep or as one falls asleep or after relaxing.  This is because our oxygen intake has decreased allowing the carbon dioxide level to rise.  This can then trigger the over sensitive suffocation alarm system (solitary nucleus).  If you suffer this type of panic attack you will frequently suffer hyperventilation.  

It’s worth noting that women are more susceptible to panic attacks after child birth and during periods.  Both of these times are when levels of progesterone drop very sharply.  Progesterone can lower levels of carbon dioxide in the brain by making us breathe faster.  The loss of progesterone can increase carbon dioxide and make the body more susceptible to panic.

The second type of panic is phobic panic or triggered panic attacks.  It’s more common and is the fear of fear.  Sufferers also tend to suffer from anticipation anxiety.  The symptoms include feeling like you want to escape, unable to concentrate, shaky, sweaty, etc.  Remember out of the blue panic attacks tend to be feelings of breathlessness and suffocation sensations.  The difference with this type of panic attack is the locus coeruleus is stimulated by a perceived threat in the mind.  In other words the threat is by negative, panicky thoughts

Sometimes these thoughts are so instinctive we don’t actually realize we have thought them.  In other situations it might be some sort of traumatic incident that that keep triggering the same anxious thoughts habitually.  For example if you were involved in a bad car crash, you might every time you drive a car, get panic attacks.  The unconscious mind associates cars with a stressful event and the locus coeruleus is activated because the brains thought patterns (neural pathways) have linked car driving and scary experiences together.   The fight or flight response is then activated, and adrenaline is sent around the body and noradrenalin (more commonly known as nor epinephrine) to the brain.

Whether your experiencing 'out of the blue' panic attacks or if you know whats triggering them (or both), then my two articles WHAT ARE PANIC ATTACKS & THE ANXIETY NERVOUS SYSTEM will help you overcome them.

Eleanor Roosevelt“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Eleanor Roosevelt - You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life



Why do you Fear?

What causes Panic Attacks?

What are the symptoms of Panic Attacks?

How to Stop a Panic Attack?

What Triggers Panic Attacks?

Tools of the Trade - Recovery

What are Panic attacks

The Nervous System

Self Help for your Nerves - Dr Claire Weekes

Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway: How to Turn Your Fear and Indecision into Confidence and Action

Instant Confidence (Book and CD)

Overcoming Panic and Agoraphobia

The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook (Anxiety & Phobia Workbook)

Control Stress : Stop Worrying and Feel Good Now




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