Sometimes panic can occur “out of the blue”, when you’re not in any danger. These panic episodes are called panic attacks. Because you’re not in any danger, these panic attacks aren’t useful; and in fact, they can cause significant problems. If someone experiences many panic attacks, he or she often begins to worry about having another panic attack and the anticipation causes him or her to feel even more anxiety. Sometimes this worry becomes so strong that he or she will avoid going to places where a panic attack might happen. For some people, this may severely limit where they feel comfortable going (such as: school, the mall, driving on the highway, etc.), resulting in another mental disorder called Agoraphobia.
Researchers have conducted both animal and human studies to pinpoint the particular parts of the brain that are involved in anxiety and fear. Because fear evolved to deal with danger, it sets off an immediate protective response without conscious thought. This fear response is believed to be coordinated by the amygdala, a structure deep inside the brain. Although relatively small, the amygdala is quite complex, and recent studies suggest that anxiety disorders may be associated with abnormal activity within it.
When we’re anxious, the body produces a stress response. The stress response is designed to give us an extra ‘boost’ of awareness and energy when we think we could be in danger. The stress response causes a number of physiological, psychological, and emotional changes in the body that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a perceived threat – to either fight or flee, which is the reason the stress response is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight response.’