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  • Guneet Bal

A Peek Inside the Mind During Anxiety Attacks

Updated: Oct 14, 2023

By: Guneet Bal, Contributing Writer

Edited by: Elias Azizi, Editor in Chief


Panic and anxiety attacks feel… well… terrible. An anxiety attack feels precisely like real fear but with no real threat. These terrible symptoms include adrenaline, tunnel vision, trouble focusing, quick heartbeat, sweating, trembling, and more (Anxiety disorders - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic). The thing is, although it feels like thinking about the biological part of anxiety won’t help reduce it, knowing what’s happening in the mental state of your mind can be very useful. For example, knowing what can stimulate the prefrontal cortex can help end the attacks much quicker. Examples and methods that helped yours truly will be given below.


Firstly, what’s happening in the brain during anxiety attacks? Fear is the amygdala’s specialty. The amygdala is the part of the brain that sends the adrenaline rushes, tunnel vision, and other fear symptoms. It does this to help our bodies make the best decision in a life threatening situation that requires quick thinking. It works with the hippocampus to fully put this fear and self protection into effect (From Structure to Behavior in Basolateral Amygdala-Hippocampus Circuits). The amygdala gives the hippocampus a reason to give the body all the fear symptoms, and the hippocampus will send the fear symptoms to the body. Our brains are always active, so if it sees something like a tiger in front of it or hears an earthquake rumble close to them, it alerts the amygdala. The amygdala is active now, and sends the reason of threat as well as the appropriate symptoms to the hippocampus. Then, the hippocampus sends the symptoms to the body in order to protect it. These symptoms include the fight, flight and freeze responses (From Structure to Behavior in Basolateral Amygdala-Hippocampus Circuits). These responses are natural and even helpful in threatening and dangerous situations, like having tunnel vision so the body can only focus on what is in front of it, or adrenaline to give the body energy to fight, or flight away from the threat. It becomes a problem when these intense symptoms are activated in non-life threatening situations. The amygdala will react to unrealistic stimuli. Many of these include spiders, public speaking, or waking up every morning anxious about everyday activities. That is what anxiety is: unrealistic fears that affect everyday life. Many people have fears of leaving their house, called agoraphobia. Feeling adrenaline and tunnel vision, and other normally-helpful symptoms while simply trying to leave the house is a problem, and it is in fact considered an anxiety disorder (Anxiety disorders - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic).


The direct opposite of the amygdala would be the prefrontal cortex. Think of the brain as a light switch; when the prefrontal cortex is activated and stimulated, the amygdala is turned off. When the amygdala is activated and stimulated, the prefrontal cortex is turned off. This is extremely beneficial information for someone who has anxiety attacks often, or needs a quick tip on how to get rid of or reduce one (Effect of Prefrontal Cortex Stimulation on Regulation of Amygdala Response to Threat in Individuals With Trait Anxiety - PMC). Many stimuli examples for the frontal cortex include logic, gratitude, and creativity. Logic would be facts vs. feelings, doing math equations, physical grounding like breathing techniques to remind you of where you are, and using methods like 5,4,3,2,1. Gratitude and positivity stimulates the frontal cortex. This is why talking with positive friends or listing out everything you’re grateful for can wake up the prefrontal cortex. Creativity includes listening to music, drawing and practicing a routine or remembering all the lyrics to your favorite song. This activates the prefrontal cortex, which switches off the amygdala, therefore ending the anxiety attack, or at least reducing the attack to the point of bearability.


Methods:

  • Math - solving math equations takes a bit of brain focus, especially harder math questions, which allows your brain to focus on that rather than the anxiety trigger

  • Facts vs Feelings - asking yourself “what are the facts of the situation” and “what am I feeling about the situation” can help differentiate the two, and help one realize that feelings are not facts. This will help one understand that the trigger for the anxiety is not a life threatening situation. Reminding yourself of the facts can also be things like “if something were to happen, the paramedics and police would come help me immediately” and reminders that people are always willing to help.

  • Breathing Techniques. One of these is the Box Breathing, which consists of a 4 second inhale, 4 second hold, 4 second exhale, and 4 second hold. Another one is 478, which is 4 second inhale, 7 second hold and 8 second inhale. This helps remind the brain that if you’re able to manually breathe, you are in no life threatening danger.

  • Music - focusing on the lyrics of a complicated song or the dance routine of a song is a great way to engage the prefrontal cortex.

  • 5,4,3,2,1 - This method includes your surroundings. Try to find 5 unique things you can see (this helps reduce tunnel vision), 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can touch. This technique is great for grounding and activating the prefrontal cortex.



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