Out-of-the-blue or spontaneous panic attacks may not be as spontaneous as they sound. A recent study found that unexpected attacks are actually preceded by measurable changes in the nervous system. Even if you aren’t consciously aware that a panic attack is imminent, your body shows subtle signs that it is preparing for one. If confirmed, the finding might cause psychiatrists to redefine the way they now distinguish what they refer to as “uncued” from “cued” attacks.
The insight will interest the nearly 3 percent of the U.S. adult population that experiences panic attacks, 45 percent of whom suffer from severe panic disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. These people may experience feelings of dread and have trouble breathing during attacks. Their hearts may pound and their bodies may shake and sweat; and they may struggle to breath.
Such symptoms, according to researchers at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, are signaled by changes in the autonomic nervous system up to three-quarters of an hour before patients feel they are having an attack. The autonomic nervous system is normally not under conscious control; it regulates processes like the beating of the heart, the contraction of blood vessels and ensures that we continue to breathe even when we are unconscious. The researchers found that breathing and autonomic functions showed significant signs of instability before attacks. Also, skin conductance, such as sweating, rose in the hour preceding attacks.
At this time, these insight don’t provide any new ways for you to avoid panic attacks, but there are steps you can take that might help you control them. These include disciplined, daily relaxation routines, avoiding stimulant drugs and professional counseling.