Don’t Be Fooled by False Alarms: Understanding the Body’s Emergency Stress Response

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

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Consider the last time you experienced a feeling of panic or intense stress. Chances are you had difficulty controlling your thoughts and actions. This overreaction is entirely natural, and everyone’s body handles stress differently.

Unfortunately, the body’s alarm response can be triggered accidentally, kicking our body into action and causing what is known as a fight or flight response. Rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, muscle tension, chest tightness, and lightheadedness are just a few of the automatic physiological symptoms that can develop despite the fact that there is no danger present.

In this article, we will be addressing a few key facts about the science behind the fight or flight response.

What Triggers Fight or Flight?

Many people are unaware of what sends people into a state of fight or flight. Changes in brain chemistry, stressful or traumatic life events, environmental stressors, and medical conditions  can all cause this type of emergency response.

This fight or flight response is a sudden activation of the sympathetic nervous system. As the name implies, some people fight against the problem while others run away from it. Since both are performed in a state of panic and anxiety, it can be difficult to cope without the proper tools necessary to regulate emotional reactions.

The Role of Epinephrine

Also known as adrenaline, the body releases epinephrine when undergoing periods of intense stress. Its a neurotransmitter and a hormone, and it can also be used as a medication to treat certain conditions like allergies and asthma. It opens airways, raises heart rate and blood pressure, and increases glucose levels in the blood. It can cause jitteriness, sweating and feelings of impending doom.

Issues can arise when non-stressful situations cause the release of epinephrine. Seemingly innocuous events could make someone believe something bad is going to happen to them, causing them to have reactions that are disproportionate to the situation.

What Is the Amygdala?

The amygdala is a small almond-shaped structure of the brain inside the temporal lobe that is responsible for processing emotions. It regulates fear, aggression and extreme excitement by releasing stress hormones when it detects something alarming or scary.

Unfortunately, during an emotional emergency the amygdala can override the brain’s prefrontal cortex which is responsible for planning, strategizing and making logical decisions. It releases stress hormones, triggers the fight-or-flight response despite any real threat and hijacks the logical brain.

What Is Panic Disorder?

Individuals with panic disorder have unexpected and frequent panic attacks, and there isn’t always a logical reason behind this reaction. Panic attacks are characterized by sudden onset fear that is accompanied by a number of uncomfortable physical symptoms. It is important to note that not everyone who has a panic attack will develop panic disorder.

Panic disorder can be triggered by a traumatic event, genetics, too much caffeine, substance use, a medical condition or a culmination of stressful life events. One of the most distressing symptoms of experiencing a panic attack is when you become overly preoccupied about when the next one is going to occur. This anticipatory anxiety can lead to avoidance of the perceived triggers, isolation, and even depressed mood.

Symptoms of panic include racing heart, tightness in the chest, tremors, hyperventilation, hot flushes, cold flushes, numbness in extremities, lightheadedness, nausea and tunnel vision. Sometimes there is a sudden need to urinate, defecate or vomit. People can mistake these symptoms for a heart attack or an asthma attack or may fear that they are going crazy. 

Types of Irrational Reactions

Reactions will vary from person to person. Some people experience overwhelming fear and try to remove themselves as much as possible from the perceived triggering situation. Others feel so anxious that they freeze and can’t react.

When in the throes of a false alarm, people may act in ways they normally wouldn’t. They might lash out at their loved ones, avoid certain areas, or blame their feelings on certain circumstances.

In some situations, people might endanger themselves or others. For instance, someone who panics in a public place could push others out of their way to escape from the area.

Recognizing and Managing False Alarms

By identifying your stress triggers and labeling your reactions as false alarms, you can take back control and feel confident that this simple dump of adrenaline is not a real threat.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can all cause false alarms.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medication, deep breathing, exercise, social support, and holistic approaches are great ways to manage high level anxiety.  It helps to understand the triggers that lead to the anxiety, and to train the brain and nervous system to work together to deactivate the faulty alarm system inside the nervous system. Speak with a healthcare provider to determine the best course of action to treat your anxiety.

Advanced Behavioral Health specializes in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT), and mindfulness-based therapy to treat the full spectrum of anxiety disorder. We strive to exceed all expectations and help our patients get their lives back on track. You’ll learn more about the benefits we provide when you get in touch with us today.

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