What Happens When Fear Goes Too Far? The Science Behind a Panic Attack!

The Adrellian Factor

Fearful man with hands on his face

Ever jump when you hear a sudden loud noise? This is the fight or flight response that your body takes to a potential danger that you are confronted with. Moreover, fear would be an extension of the loud noise reaction and would be much more intense. The mind interprets the situation as a danger, reacts appropriately, and takes the necessary biological and psychological precautions to alleviate this fear.

What’s Happening Physically?

When the body senses danger, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol and as a result, your body’s heart rate and blood pressure are increased, as well as possibly a pounding headache and sweating.

Man grabbing his chest

As your heart beats faster and harder, known as palpitations you may feel, faint and get a sharp pain in your chest.

You may even feel like you are having a heart attack, which could be possible, depending upon your personal physical and psychological conditions. In this case, you may want to contact medical professionals, especially if the condition persists.

As these systems continue, your body can experience a “nervous stomach”.  The muscles in the stomach wall contract, which can cause nausea and vomiting. In addition to the physical symptoms, the mind also becomes “paralyzed”. This is when your cognitive process becomes disrupted. People may also feel an experience of detachment. The thoughts are racing and a person may feel as if their body isn’t their own.

Not everyone will feel every symptom during a panic attack, but if a fearful condition confronts you, there is no doubt you will experience a good variety of these.

Let’s break these symptoms down.

What’s Happening Mentally?

Woman showing signs of headach or stress
Photo: Graphicstock

Some typical thoughts during a panic attack are “What if this happens again?” “What if I can’t do this?” or “I’m a failure”, among many other thoughts of worry. These emotions arise in a part of the brain called the amygdala which contains almond-shaped cells that are located near the bottom of the brain.

The amygdala contains your memories and with those memories, connections to certain emotions exist. They can be happy, sad, scared, or any other emotion you had during that memory and are called emotional remembrances. The amygdala is a part of the limbic system, the portion of the brain which is responsible for your emotional and behavioral responses.

Strategies for Overcoming Anxiety

    • Understand The Cause – The cause of your anxiety could be biological, psychological, or social. If it’s biological, you can take medication. The cause may be psychological, in which case you can learn how to overcome anxiety. The cause may also be social. In this case, you may need to change your social habits.
    • Identify The Trigger – In a panic attack, the mind interprets harmless situations as potentially catastrophic. Take some deep breaths and try to think about the situation in an organized fashion step by step. If you can break down why the situation is happening, you will have a better chance of confronting and dealing with it.


Panic attacks can be anxiety disorders. They affect 15-30% of the population. When you get an attack, your body reacts with the fight or flight response. This can cause a rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, and possibly other conditions such as sweating.

The amygdala in your brain is where the response originates and is where the adrenaline and cortisol hormones are released.

You may be able to control these attacks, especially if you have an anxiety order condition. About half of the people with anxiety disorders don’t seek help. They assume that they’ll overcome their anxiety on their own. However, it may take months, years, or a lifetime for things to get better. It’s important to seek help as soon as possible. It’s more likely that the symptoms will be mild if they’re treated early. If untreated, an anxiety disorder can get worse, causing depression, abuse of drugs or alcohol, and even suicide. If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, talk to your doctor. Together, you can find a treatment that works for you.