Each year, six million Americans experience at least one panic attack, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. As an anonymous person said in a Huffington Post article about panic attacks: "It feels like being trapped and suffocated, as if the building was on fire with no escape. It feels urgent and frightening."
Panic attacks are sudden episodes of almost uncontrollable and inescapable fear or anxiety, and are characterized by sweating, a rapid heart rate, shortness of breath and the feeling of choking, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
But rather than being due to "weakness in character," scientists have discovered that panic disorders are actually caused by a brain abnormality in which a chemical messenger that deals with emotion doesn't work properly, according to the New York Times. During a panic attack, the brain and also the nervous system become responsible for the symptoms felt, according to Scientific American.
According to Scientific American, a study showed that the brain's regions that are sent into high gear are the amygdala, which deals with fear, and some of the midbrain, which deals with how pain is felt. In particular, the periaqueductal gray — a region in the midbrain that initiates the body going into defense mode, which includes freezing up — is hyperactive during panic attacks, the study found. "When our defense mechanisms malfunction, this may result in an over exaggeration of the threat, leading to increased anxiety and, in extreme cases, panic," Dean Mobbs, the study's lead author wrote.
Stress and anxiety causes the nervous system to flare up, and in attempts to calm down, the parasympathetic system goes into action. However, if it fails to do so, the person will continue to feel revved up.
Many people are still not properly treated for anxiety, and panic attacks can get worse with time, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.