Panic Disorder Cycle

Marcelina Hardy, MSEd, BCC
Woman with panic disorder

The panic disorder cycle has to do with your mind and body's response to a threat. Understanding how a panic disorder cycle works can help you identify when an attack is about to start, and in some cases, stop one from happening.

The Panic Disorder Cycle

Many times, a panic disorder cycle begins in your subconscious. Since you don't always know what your subconscious mind is thinking, it can be difficult to stop the signal that it sends to your brain that there is a threat present. This is why you could innocently be sitting in a restaurant and all of sudden, you feel ill and anxiety starts taking over. While your subconscious mind may be the culprit for a panic attack, your conscious mind may also spark the message to your brain that you need to react, especially when you see, hear or think about something that elicits uncomfortable feelings.

Once your brain receives this threat signal from your subconscious or conscious mind, it may not know how to handle it, especially if you suffer from panic disorder. Instead of your brain setting off signals for you to use your coping skills, it instead triggers glands to release hormones that get your body ready for the fight or flight response.

During the fight or flight response, your heart begins beating faster, muscles tighten up, blood pressure rises, you may sweat, lose your hearing, have tunnel vision, begin shaking and your eyes may dilate. At this point, you may feel like you need to leave wherever you are and/or you may become greatly enraged or fearful of your surroundings. This is when panic sets in and you suffer from an attack.

While in the throes of the attack, since you are feeling fearful and full of anxiety, your body takes this as a signal that you are still presented with a threat and will again set your body in motion to react, which then causes you even more distress, which sets the panic cycle in motion again and again.

Ending the Panic Cycle

It can seem impossible to stop the panic cycle; since once you start, your body is simply reacting to what it set in motion itself because of the first signal it received from your mind. Many sufferers have learned relaxation techniques that are effective in stopping the body's response to stress. Visualization can help trick the mind into thinking that a threat is no longer present, which then signals the body to stop responding to it. Some people find breathing, meditation, or music to help ease the mind. However, if the cycle is unaffected by conventional stress reducing techniques, sufferers may need medication.

Some panic disorder sufferers take PRN or "as needed" medication that can stop the body's response to a threat. The medication forces the body to relax by slowing down heart rate, releasing tense muscles, and stopping the production of hormones that were set in place when the cycle first began. When the body is able to calm down, the person is able to think clearly and be able to perceive the situation he or she is in as not a threat, at which time the cycle has ended.

Panic Disorder Cycle