The Understanding of Anxiety & Panic Attacks


Anxiety is the feeling we get when our body responds to a frightening or an intimidating experience. It has been called the "fight or flight" response. Basically it is your body and mind preparing for action, either to combat danger or flee from it as quickly as possible. The purpose of the physical symptons of anxiety therefore is to prepare your body to handle the threat.

To understand what is happening in your body, imagine that you are about to be attacked or ambushed. As soon as you are aware of the threat, your muscles tense ready for action. Your heart beats faster to carry blood to your muscles and brain, where it is most required. You start breathing faster to supply enough oxygen which is needed for energy. You sweat to stop your body from overheating. Your mouth becomes dry and your tummy may have churning or butterfly sensations. When you realise that the "attacker" is in fact a friend, the feelings start to fade away, but you may feel shaky and weak after the experience.

The fight or flight response is a really basic system that maybe goes back to the days of the cave men, and is present in animals who depend on it for their survival. Greatly, nowadays we are not often in such life or death situations, but unfortunately many of the stresses we do challenge in life can't be fought or hide from, so the symptoms don't help. In fact they often make us feel worse, especially if we don't understand them.

Anxiety can affect us in at least four different ways. They are:

  1. The way we feel. Such as: Anxious, nervous, worried, frightened, feeling something bad is going to happen, tense, stressed, uptight, on edge, unsettled, unreal, strange, woozy, detached and panicky.

2. The way we think. Such as: Constant worrying, can't concentrate, thoughts racing in your mind, your mind jumping from one thing to another and imagining the worst and dwelling on it. And the most common thoughts are things like: I'm losing control, i'm going to faint, My legs are going to collapse, I'm going to have a heart attack, i'm going to make a fool of myself, i can't cope or i've got to get out and it continues on.

3. The Way our body works. Things like what happens to your body are: Heart pounds, races, skips a beat, chest feels tight or painful, stomach churning or butterflies, body aches, sweating, difficulty breathing, dizzy or light headed, need to go to the toilet and tingling or numbness in toes or fingers.

4. The way we behave. Things like what we do are: Start jobs and not finish, pace up and down, can't sit on a chair to relax, talk rapidly without thinking, eat more (or less) irritable behaviour, smoke a cigarette, drink alcohol and avoid situations of fear.

If you are regularly experiencing some or most of these symptoms, then it is likely that you are suffering from anxiety and panic.


There may be many reasons why someone becomes anxious. Some people may have an anxious personality and have learned to make a habit to worry. Others may have a series of stressful life events to cope with, for example bereavements, redundancy, divorce, separation or financial difficulties. Others may be under pressure, at work, or home, for example, due to family problems or household bills.

So what keeps anxiety going? Sometimes anxiety can go on and on, and become a life long problem. There can be a number of reasons for this:

  • If someone has an anxious personality and is a worrier, then they will probably be in the habit of feeling anxious all the time in their lives.
  • Sometimes people have continuous stresses over a period of years which means they develop the habit of being anxious.
  • Sometimes a vicious cycle of anxiety develops - as the bodily symptoms of anxiety can be frightening, unusual and unpleasant, people often react by thinking that there is something physically wrong, or that something terrible is about to happen. This in itself aggravates more symptoms, and so a vicious cycle develops.
  • Someone who has experienced anxiety in a certain situation may begin to predict feeling anxious, and become frightened of the symptoms themselves, this in turn actually causes the very symptoms that are feared. In other words this is called "fear of fear".
  • Avoidance - once a vicious cycle has developed with loads of anxious thoughts increasing the anxiety symptoms, avoidance is often used as a way of coping. It is natural to avoid something that is dangerous, but the sorts of things that people tend to avoid when they suffer from anxiety are most often not real perils but busy shops, buses crowded places, eating out, talking to people etc. Not only are these things not perilous, but they are somewhat necessary. Avoiding them can make life very inconvenient and difficult. This sort of avoidance can also result in a huge loss of confidence which can affect how good you feel about yourself, which in turn makes you feel more anxious - another vicious cycle.

To Summarise:

  • Anxiety is often the body's response to stress, although some of us may be a bit more prone to anxiety and worry more than others.
  • When we are suffering from anxiety, though it can be unpleasant, it is our body's normal reponse to threat or danger and is not dangerous.
  • Anxiety symptoms are part of the fight or flight response and are intended to be helpful in spurring us into action.
  • Anxiety becomes a problem when the symptoms are: Severe and unpleasant, going on for too long, happening too often, causing us to worry that there is something seriously wrong and preventing us from doing what we want to do in life.
  • Anxiety often becomes a part of a vicious circle where our symptoms, thoughts and behaviour keep the anxiety going.