Panic attacks & amygdala: what’s the link?

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Panic attacks are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors, with the amygdala playing a crucial role in processing fear and triggering the sympathetic nervous system. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help retrain the amygdala to respond more appropriately, while medication may provide temporary relief. Panic disorder affects approximately 4 million Americans and 80 million people worldwide.

While there is no consensus among researchers and mental health professionals about the degree to which a panic attack results from biological, psychological, or environmental factors, it is generally accepted that all three play a role. From a biological perspective, of most interest is the amygdala, a part of the limbic system deep in the brain that houses memories, sensations, and emotions, processes the experience of fear, and guides behavior. In some individuals, certain stimuli prompt the amygdala to work with the most primary part of the brain – the so-called reptilian brain – to get the sympathetic nervous system to behave in ways that trigger a panic attack.

Neurotransmitters, chemicals that transfer information from one part of the brain to another, play a crucial role in the messages the amygdala receives and the instructions it sends to the rest of the body. In the case of a panic attack, a type of anxiety, the amygdala misinterprets some signals, leading to behaviors that are not at all justified by the situation at hand. In these cases, the amygdala could invoke the fight-or-flight instinct or generate other extreme symptoms of panic. An individual might experience things like a pounding heart, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, chills, or hot flashes. He or she may also have crippling fear, a fear of losing control, or even a fear of imminent death.

The symptoms of a panic attack are usually short-lived, often lasting a few minutes. In some cases, however, an attack can last for hours. Another symptom is fear of when the next panic attack will occur.

Panic attacks differ from other forms of anxiety not only in their brevity, but also in the fact that they are episodic. When panic attacks become frequent or destructive enough, however, they encompass full-fledged panic disorder. There is no general agreement on what triggers a panic attack, but some anxiety and panic disorder specialists argue that the intense, momentary distress is a manifestation of the memory of helplessness a person experienced as a child or very young child. small.

Experts believe that the amygdala learns to respond to stimuli in specific ways, and in some individuals, one of those ways is a panic attack. Anxiety disorder research over the years has focused on the use of cognitive behavioral therapy – behavior modification – to retrain the amygdala to respond more appropriately to apparent anxiety- and panic-inducing stimuli. This form of therapy provides a framework for the client to challenge, with guidance from the therapist, negative thought patterns and self-defeating behaviors. In addition to treating panic attacks, behavior modification has been shown to be effective in addressing the many phobias that are sometimes linked to panic disorder.

Other mental health professionals have developed several therapies that may be effective in treating panic disorder. In some cases, anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants may prove to be helpful. However, they may not make permanent changes to the amygdala itself.

Although approximately 10% of the US population will experience at least one transient panic attack, approximately 4 million Americans suffer from panic disorder. Worldwide, it is estimated that anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, affect more than 80 million people. Field investigations, however, are far from complete.

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