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Of Mice…and Suffocation Alarms???

In my discussion of the contributors to panic attacks and anxiety, in my eWorkbook Panic! …and Poetic Justice, I mention something known as a false suffocation alarm. The great panic research pioneer, Dr. D.F. Klein, brought it to the fore in 1993.

He suggested mammals have this sort of super sensitive alarm system that monitors, and can perceive, the danger of suffocation. According to Klein, this mechanism detects high levels of carbon dioxide, which may exist as a result of a potentially low supply of oxygen.

See, when high levels of carbon dioxide are detected the brain triggers a suffocation alarm indicating the amount of useful air is getting low. And our natural fight/flight response takes over; and off to the races we go. According to Klein, this occurs very intentionally to correct a perceived chemical imbalance; saving us from suffocation.

By the way, it’s been known for quite some time that carbon dioxide triggers panic attacks. In fact, it’s used to induce panic attacks in lab work. And those who’ve been diagnosed with panic disorder bite almost every time.

Well, along comes the work of some of those Hawkeyes at the University of Iowa, as described in the journal, Cell. They found that mice who’d breathed-in introduced carbon dioxide showed elevations of brain acid levels, which resulted in the activation of acid-sensing channels that launch fear behavior. Noted were avoidance of open spaces, as well as ramped-up freezing behaviors.

At the very heart of the research is our amygdala. It seems as though it  isn’t just the keystone of our fear and alarm circuitry. No, it also serves as an acid sensor. Absolutely, excesses in carbon dioxide can kill us; so detection of brain acid levels would have to be a top priority. And since it’s so socially well connected, when the amygdala decides to sound the alarm all sorts of biological goodies move into action; most notably the fight/flight response of our sympathetic nervous system.

So as Dr. Klein suggested, it seems as though the very foundation of panic and anxiety may just be an issue of a suffocation alarm system gone bonkers. And the work at the University of Iowa goes on to suggest those who are especially prone to panic and anxiety may have a genetically compromised carbon dioxide detection system.

Is this fascinating, or what?

Our Take Away

  • Our natural design is absolutely amazing (whether we like it or not)
  • The amygdala is more than just an alarm-sounding device, it’s a sensor
  • Yes, there’s a biological reason as to why we panic and become anxious; and our bodies are doing just what they’re supposed to do (before our cognitive intervention – hint, hint)
  • New and unique treatment strategies can now be designed to, perhaps, target our brain acid level detection mechanism

Your Take Away?

What does understanding this suffocation alarm business bring to the reality of your life?