Panic and the Fight or Flight Response

There’s a part of your brain responsible for detecting threats, called the amygdala. Once the amygdala detects an urgent threat, it swings into action, triggering the flight or fight response, completely bypassing the conscious control of the frontal lobes in doing so. The message “Run! Fight!” then goes out throughout the body via the sympathetic nervous system.

Before we get deeply into the sympathetic nervous system, though, let’s check out the structure of the whole nervous system, because that’s where the sympathetic nervous system is situated.

The nervous system is divided into the central and autonomic nervous systems. The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord. The function of the brain is executive control of the organism, and apparently, this executive control is so important that it merits its own nervous system. The body also gets its own nervous system, called the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.

Although it’s an oversimplification, it’s convenient to think of the sympathetic nervous system as speeding things up. The sympathetic nervous system intensifies the functioning of organs and muscles that respond to threat. In contrast, the parasympathetic system slows things down. Emergencies don’t last forever, so if you speed things up, you need a way of slowing them down again, of transitioning body function back to the conditions of safety, of everyday life. That’s the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic and parasympathetic work in opposition to each other in order to modulate the level of arousal in the body’s various organ systems.

Involuntary Control

The autonomic and sympathetic systems operate mostly involuntarily, outside conscious control. If you had to consciously tell your body to breathe in and breathe out, you wouldn’t be able to respond quickly to threats. In fact, you wouldn’t be able to do much at all. Breathing would be your whole life. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. Not very exciting. As such, breathing, along with most sympathetic nervous system activities, functions below the level of conscious awareness. Your amygdala is in charge here, you are not. That’s how it has to be. If you had to tell your right foot to take a step, then your left foot to take a step, then your right foot again, you’d never escape that hungry lion. You’d be plodding along hopelessly, free game for any hungry predator. You explicitly need a system that functions reliably and automatically once activated. You need a system that you do not control.

The Hypothalamus

As it turns out, the amygdala sits very close to a structure in the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus secretes so many important hormones that’s it’s sometimes regarded as the brain-body interface. During the flight or flight response, the hypothalamus dumps epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the circulatory system. Epinephrine has amazing effects on the body. You may have read stories about someone trapped in a car after an accident and the car is about to explode. The first person on the scene sees the situation. The amygdala signals emergency, and tells the hypothalamus, which dumps massive amounts of epinephrine into the responder’s body. The responder, now in fight mode, attempts the impossible, and lifts the car up off the helpless victim, who wiggles free just in time. Among other things, epinephrine prepares your body for extreme feats of strength.

Symptoms of Panic Attack

Not surprisingly, the symptoms of a panic attack look a lot like what happens in the body when the amygdala triggers the fight or flight response. In fact, a panic attack IS the flight or flight response, it’s just occurring in a context that’s completely inappropriate. Maybe you go to what must be earth’s most boring meeting, and you STILL have a panic attack.

During an emergency, the survival of the whole organism is at stake. As such, during the flight or fight response, the resources of the whole organism are mobilized for survival. So, if the amygdalae detect a threat and trigger the fight or flight response, this can occur completely outside conscious awareness, beyond any conscious ability to stop it, involving massive stimulation of all the organ systems controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. The amygdalae have a direct connection to the sympathetic nervous system that bypasses the frontal lobes. Not exactly a great place to be if this is happening to you, because it’s likely you have no idea why it might be happening.

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