This Is What Happens to Your Body When You Have a Panic Attack

It's fight-or-flight time for your brain, heart, eyes, and stomach.

woman having panic attack what happens when you have a panic attack
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Every year, anywhere from two to three percent of the American population experiences a truly debilitating panic attack, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). That means approximately nine million people in the United States deal with symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pains, and rashes on an annual basis. So, whether you're one of the millions who suffers from panic attacks yourself or you want to understand them better for a loved one, keep reading to discover exactly what happens to the body when one of these paralyzing anxiety attacks sets in.

Your sympathetic nervous system is activated.

From the moment a panic attack sets in, it activates the sympathetic nervous system, according to stress management expert Dr. Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D. This activation "is preparing you for fight or flight," Dean explains.

Your heart rate increases.

The sympathetic nervous system also releases adrenaline into the body when a panic attack sets in. As the American Psychiatric Association points out, this influx of adrenaline can cause the body to experience heart palpitations, an accelerated heartbeat, and chest pain or discomfort. For many, these symptoms may even feel like a heart attack.

Your eyes dilate.

According to Calm Clinic, part of the physical fight-or-flight response during a panic attack involves the dilation of the pupils. When the pupils are dilated, it allows the eyes to let in more light, temporarily improving vision and making it easier to take on a potential predator.

However, some panic attack sufferers experience the opposite reaction: blurred vision. This is caused by the eyes trying too hard to remain focused, which makes peripheral vision appear fuzzy.

Your digestive system slows down or stops working altogether.

During a panic attack, many people find that their digestion is disrupted. Since the body thinks that it's in danger, it will send signals to the enteric nervous system (which governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract) to slow down or even halt the digestive system. This is your body's attempt to conserve energy and prepare for the potential of a physical threat.

According to the ADAA, this disruption in your digestion can cause stomach cramps, diarrhea, constipation, and nausea.

Blood flow decreases to your arms and legs.

For those suffering from a panic attack, the blood in the extremities is often rerouted to the other parts of the body that the central nervous system deems more important. Because of this blood loss, panic attack sufferers often complain of numbness in their arms, legs, feet, and hands.

Hyperventilation can also cause a numb feeling in the extremities, as shallow breathing provides the body with too much oxygen and too little carbon dioxide. This unbalanced ratio eventually causes your blood vessels to constrict and limits blood flow to the extremities, as Calm Clinic points out.

Your sweat glands go into overdrive.

A person having a panic attack may excessively sweat for a myriad of different reasons. From a fight-or-flight perspective, the Anxiety Centre notes that the body increases its perspiration production in order to reduce the amount of water being stored in the kidneys. Less water in the kidneys means a decreased need to go to the bathroom—and as far as the body is concerned, there's no time for that when there is an imminent threat.

In other instances, someone having a panic attack can also experience an uncomfortable amount of perspiration due to their increased heart rates and respiration. These upticks occur as the body works in overtime to reroute the flow of blood from the less essential parts of the body to the more important areas essential for survival.

Your mouth becomes dry.

For anxious individuals, a climbing pulse is usually closely accompanied by rapid breathing. Because of this, Calm Clinic notes that those suffering from anxiety and/or panic attacks are more likely to breathe out of their mouths, which ultimately causes dryness.

You develop a rash.

While not everyone who suffers from panic attacks experiences this unpleasant symptom, there are still some who develop rashes from particularly bad bouts of anxiety.

According to the National Eczema Association, rashes occur during panic attacks because of the way that the body communicates with the brain during a fight-or-flight situation. When you're incredibly anxious, your body produces a large amount of cortisol. Too much of this hormone ends up suppressing the immune system, causing an inflammatory response in the skin. And for more information on decreasing anxiety, check out 30 Easy Ways to Fight Stress.

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