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The Science Behind Panic Attacks: What’s Happening in Your Brain?

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The Science Behind a Panic Attack: What’s Going on in Your Brain? Kyrylo Ryzhov/PhotoSpin

We've all experienced moments of panic. But when panic attacks are commonplace and hampering daily life, a panic disorder may be in play.

Some panic attacks are situational. For example, a normally calm person can experience an attack due to sudden news of a death, an accident or some other trauma. Standing in front of a panel for an examination, or having to make an important presentation or speech can fill a person with panic.

But these may not be the kind of attacks that could be defined as a disorder.

For many others, panic attacks are more common, and are symptomatic of an anxiety or panic disorder. Therapy can help those with a panic disorder so that they can learn the tools to cope when the first signs of an attack occur.

It can help people to learn how to avoid situations that lead to these attacks. But regardless of why or how often, all panic attacks come down to the same science — how stress affects the body and mind.

EmpowHER describes a panic attack as part of “... a type of anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent and unpredictable bursts of terror known as panic attacks. A panic attack is accompanied by physical symptoms that may feel similar to a heart attack or other life-threatening condition.”

Other symptoms include becoming out of breath, sweating, an inability to speak or move, trembling and shaking. The terror felt can be extreme enough that a person feels they may black out or even die.

An article in Scientific American helps to uncover why.

Cognitive science lecturer Paul Li explains that “researchers have identified certain regions of the brain that become hyperactive during a panic attack. These regions include the amygdala, which is the fear center of the brain, and parts of the midbrain that control a range of functions, including our experience of pain.”

The amygdala is thought to control our fears ... and our aggression. For example, if faced with a bear in the woods, this is the area of the brain that will decide what a person will do.

Will it make the person fight, or take flight? Will aggression take over, or fear?

The results of these decisions may have a direct impact on whether a person will have a panic attack, or respond more decisively. A panic attack can ensue if the brain does not react properly — a brain glitch of sorts.

Wellcome Trust Center for Neuroimaging at University College London conducted tests by an MRI in order to discern the part of the brain that is affected by stress and fear. They found that an area in the middle of the brain called the the periaqueductal gray was affected. The PAG is where the body decides how it’s going to react to a crisis.

By learning this, researchers believe better medication or therapeutic services can be offered to those afflicted.

In the meantime, what does a person do who can identify that they are having a panic attack? If therapy isn’t possible, there are other ways to know what to do.

Informing close friends and family that you are susceptible to these attacks are important so that they can help calm you, and not panic themselves. Also let them know how serious these attacks can feel so that they understand better what’s going on.

Prepare in advance. Don’t do things or put yourself in situations that can trigger a panic attack unless you have learned some tools to cope.

Breathing is important. Breathe evenly and deeply. Stretch the body. Activities like yoga and meditation are great ways to learn proper breathing techniques, and how to calm the body and mind.

If panic attacks are a common, or even an occasional, occurrence for you, seeing a therapist who specializes in these kinds of disorders can be instrumental in retraining the brain. It can help you to learn the coping mechanisms you need to be able to respond to life’s ups and downs in a better way.


EmpowHER.com. Mental Health. Panic Disorder. Web. Retrieved June 23rd, 2015.

Scientific American. Mind and Brain. Ask the Brain. “What Happens in the Brain When we Experience a Heart Attack?” Web. Retrieved June 23rd, 2015.

Reviewed June 24, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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