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When Anxiety Becomes Panic

anxiety and panicWe all feel anxiety. Anxiety is normal and can be very useful. For example, last summer we were walking our dogs down by an irrigation ditch in Corrales and Chuck suddenly grabbed my arm and spun me around. The dogs followed—obediently. My first feeling was annoyance, but as I looked back at a snake slithering across the path, my physical response was quick.

I was alert and aware of the snake behind us. I distinctly heard a rattle as we moved quickly and silently away. I was not thinking, only acting.

When your body responds to a dangerous situation like a snake in your path, you’re preparing to fight or flee. In the case of a snake, getting away makes more sense than making a stand to fight. The response to danger is hard wired and immediate. The brain responds to a perceived threat by releasing chemicals that surge to all parts of the body. These chemicals help protect you in the face of danger. You instantly become stronger and faster; your senses are all in hyperarousal; your focus intensifies. The body also responds when the danger is gone and the chemicals subside. After danger passes, there is usually a feeling of relaxation or fatigue.

The chemicals released during times of anxiety surge through the whole body. That’s why people who experience high levels of anxiety often have lots of physical symptoms. Anxious people can get cold or hot, have trouble getting enough air, or breathe too quickly, they may have muscle aches, or muscle weakness, upset stomachs, headaches, diarrhea, or constipation. These physical sensations can be frightening in and of themselves.

The fear of anxiety is the basis of panic disorder. People who develop panic disorder are first plagued by the physical symptoms of anxiety. When those symptoms are intense, people fear they might lose control, die, or embarrass themselves. The first step to treating panic is the understanding that panic attacks involve high levels of physiological symptoms in response to a perceived dangerous situation. More about actual panic attacks and Panic Disorder in a couple of days. Stay tuned.

Rattlesnake photo available from Shutterstock

When Anxiety Becomes Panic

Laura L. Smith, Ph.D.

Laura L. Smith, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of adults and children with obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as personality disorders, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and learning disorders. Dr. Smith is a widely published author of articles and books to the profession and the public, including: Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (2E), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies, Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies, Anxiety and Depression Workbook For Dummies, Depression For Dummies, Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth, and Why Can’t I Be the Parent I Want to Be? Her website is:

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APA Reference
Smith, L. (2011). When Anxiety Becomes Panic. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Dec 2011
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