Panic attacks: what they are and what to do about them
Panic attacks: what they are and what to do about them

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Panic attacks: what they are and what to do about them

2.2 The fear response

A panic attack involves someone experiencing a set of body reactions which are associated with feeling fear, only often in the apparent absence of anything to be scared of.

This set of body reactions is termed ‘the fear reaction’. In the next video Professor Roger Baker describes how this fear response might be experienced if you were suddenly threatened by someone holding a knife.

Activity 5 The body’s response to fear

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

Watch the following video.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1 Professor Roger Baker discusses the fear response
Skip transcript: Video 1 Professor Roger Baker discusses the fear response

Transcript: Video 1 Professor Roger Baker discusses the fear response

ROGER BAKER
Well, lots of things happen in your body. It's huge changes in your body, which are part of the fear reaction. Your heart may double in speed, racing. Your breathing increases. Your stomach turns over. Your legs are like jelly. You might feel hot and cold. You might be sweating a lot. You can be going white. Your mouth may go dry-- hair stand on end. Your eyes blur - many, many physical features. So what's that? And why? This is the fear reaction. What's going on, really, physically with the fear reaction is that the heart is pumping faster to get more blood to the muscles. And you're breathing more oxygen, so that the oxygen will be taken into the blood. And you get more oxygenated blood, particularly, to the arms and to the legs. Anything that's not necessary kind of gets cut off. For instance, you don't need to digest your food if you're being stabbed. That's why you get feelings in your stomach-- turning over. Your mouth goes dry. You don't need to salivate when you're being killed. So anything that is not to do with getting maximum power to your arms and legs cuts off. And just, it's the whole transformation of your body into those muscles. Why? Of course, so that you can either fight ferociously or you can run much faster than you'd ever run before. It’s a fantastic system-- an exquisite system. It’s amazingly quick - the reaction. It’s terrifically powerful. And it’s physical. Your heart does race much faster than usual. Why? So that you can get away. And so in this instance you might run like mad. And you might well outrun the attacker, because this will be your personal best because of this reaction.
End transcript: Video 1 Professor Roger Baker discusses the fear response
Video 1 Professor Roger Baker discusses the fear response
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Why might having a fear reaction be a good thing do you think?

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Discussion

The fear reaction prepares the human body to respond to danger – to fight or to run away. It is an important body response for human survival!

Now watch this second video – where Professor Roger Baker explains what happens whenthe fear response is accidentally triggered in a panic attack.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 2 Professor Roger Baker explains what happens when the fear response is accidentally triggered
Skip transcript: Video 2 Professor Roger Baker explains what happens when the fear response is accidentally triggered

Transcript: Video 2 Professor Roger Baker explains what happens when the fear response is accidentally triggered

ROGER BAKER
But just imagine for a moment if you had that fear reaction and there was no man with a knife. There was no source of danger. It was a sunny day. You're walking alone or watching television. Then that would be very, very worrying. And that's exactly what a panic attack is. It's the fear reaction, which is accidentally triggered off. For some people, this reaction is accidentally triggered off in their body. And when it does, it creates havoc. Because "whoo"-- why is my heart beating twice as fast? Why is my stomach feeling like this? Why am I breathing so fast? It's very, very troublesome. And people naturally begin to think, I'm having a heart attack or this is epilepsy. I'm going mad-- all sorts of things. Just think about the fear reaction now. If it was mild, if your heart beat, let's say, 20% faster-- just a bit like that-- what use would it be? It wouldn't be enough to get you out of danger. And consider this with the fear reaction. If you ran away from the guy, you got away and escaped, and then you died because of the fear reaction. That's kind of idiotic, isn't it? You've got this wonderful protective system and the protective system kills you. So the fear reaction itself is absolutely harmless-- absolutely harmless-- no problem at all there. But it's just, when you don't know why you're getting it, it's very, very frightening. And this is the essence of a panic attack and what makes it such an awful experience.
End transcript: Video 2 Professor Roger Baker explains what happens when the fear response is accidentally triggered
Video 2 Professor Roger Baker explains what happens when the fear response is accidentally triggered
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What is Professor Baker’s key message?

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Discussion

In this video Professor Roger Baker makes the point that the fear reaction has to be intense so that it works to get you out of danger. But he also says that the fear response is harmless even if it is very unpleasant to experience. It won’t actually kill you – it just feels like it might.

To drive home this point, have a go at the following activity.

Activity 6 Fear of fear

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

Pair the right answers with the statement.

Using the following two lists, match each numbered item with the correct letter.

  1. so that it can save you in an emergency

  2. but it is designed to save you (not kill you)

  3. a fear of the fear response

  • a.The fear response feels really awful:

  • b.A key driver of panic attacks is:

  • c.The fear response is really strong:

The correct answers are:
  • 1 = c
  • 2 = a
  • 3 = b

Discussion

Because it is so scary to get the fear response out of the blue people get scared of feeling those physical feelings even though they are almost always actually harmless. And this fear of the fear response then means that people get sensitized to their own body reactions – which makes it actually more likely that a person may have another panic attack.

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