Palms sweating. Heart pounding. Thoughts racing. Panic happens in a matter of seconds. But how we go into survival mode is an evolutionary response that’s been fine-tuned over millions of years. “When you panic, you’re experiencing what we call fight-or-flight,” says Lynn Jonen, psychologist and clinical director of Sierra Tucson.

The Panic Response

An automatic series of physiological reactions that begins when we perceive something that our brain registers as harmful or stressful, panic often takes hold before you even realize it. Here’s how the domino effect unfolds.

You encounter a trigger. In prehistoric times, you may have crossed paths with a saber-toothed tiger. Now, it could be facing your phobia of public speaking. Regardless of what scares you, “a warning comes into the brain that indicates imbalance or a threat,” says Jonen. “It says something’s not right, let’s get this going.” The part of your brain that processes this response, the amygdala, helps detect fear and signal emergencies.

Your brain sounds the alarm. The amygdala only serves as a sort of sentry. It passes along a distress signal to the hypothalamus, the brain’s command center, which in turn communicates with your body through the autonomic nervous system. In this case, it tells your adrenal glands to secrete the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which act as chemical messengers throughout your body.

Your body kicks into gear… As adrenaline and cortisol flood your system, they direct certain parts of your body to adapt so that, if necessary, you would have the energy to fight or flee. “All of this is to help us get through this moment—through this perceived threat—and survive,” says Jonen. Seen in this light, our physiological response to stress makes more sense—and may even make panic feel less intimidating in the moment. For example, our hearts beat harder and breathing becomes more rapid to bring oxygen to our muscles for running or fighting. Sweating increases to help us stay cool. Our pupils dilate to help us keep a lookout for predators. Glucose and fats are released from temporary storage sites into the bloodstream, supplying extra energy to all parts of the body. More oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing basic alertness and the senses.

… Well, not all of it. Supercharging our muscles comes at the expense of other systems. “The body shuts down everything you don’t need to help you survive in that moment,” says Jonen. “It’s an evolutionary, short-lived response from when threats were very real.” While we’re panicking, hormonal signals suppress digestion, immune function, reproduction, and higher level cognitive function. (This is why, when you feel especially stressed or anxious, you may have difficulty remembering even the most basic day-to-day tasks and information.)

You wind down. A few minutes after the threat is removed, your amygdala will stop ringing the alarm bell and the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system will take control. “This is sometimes called the ‘rest and digest’ response,” says Jonen. “It restores balance and allows hormones like progesterone, estrogen, thyroid hormones that are involved in immune function, and insulin involved in digestion, to come back online.”

The After-Effects Of Panic

The fight-or-flight stress response worked perfectly when most threats were very real. But fast forward to today, and many people’s bodies don’t know the difference between a bear and the anxiety of facing a boss they can’t stand.

Prolonged Panic And Health

This inability to assess threats differently creates a constant outpouring of adrenaline and cortisol that suppresses necessary hormones in the long term, says Jonen. “This is why people with prolonged stress get sick more easily, have reproductive difficulties, and face digestive problems like IBS and gastroesophageal reflux. You also can’t think straight when you have chronic stress. In my work I see patients in their thirties, forties, and fifties who have never had a brain injury looking and feeling like they have dementia because they’re in a stress response.”

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How Fight-Or-Flight Is Different From a Panic Attack

Think of a panic attack as a snowball effect of fear. It starts out as a typical fight-or-flight response, but somewhere along the line it gets out of control—perhaps because you begin to fear the attack itself and the symptoms cause more fear which causes more symptoms to the point where you feel like you’re having a heart attack. Panic attacks also tend to occur more spontaneously than the natural fight-or-flight response, and although the exact cause is unknown, have been linked to genetics, temperament, and major life stresses.

How To Take Control Of Panic

While a fight-or-flight response is automatic, there are steps you can take to minimize its effects and calm down more quickly.

  1. Understand the process. Just knowing what’s happening in your mind and body should help you calm down the next time you feel shaky. When your heart starts to pound or your palms sweat, “Check that perception and see if there’s really a threat,” says Jonen. “If not, reframe what’s happening in the body. We’re gently letting our body and brain know we don’t need to respond right now.”
  2. Give into your instincts. Will getting out of the situation make you feel better? Do it. Take five minutes away from whatever is upsetting you to calm down and reset.
  3. Take a breather. Deep diaphragmatic breathing will force your body to slow down. Close your eyes and make sure you feel your chest move in and out.
  4. Reach out. “One of the things that tends to happen when we panic is that we draw in because everything is perceived as a threat,” says Jonen. Resist that tendency by reaching out to others. If you’re feeling anxious, tell people who are close to you how you’re feeling.
Last Updated: Jun 1, 2020