Panic Attack Contributors (Yikes!) | Lest We Forget Hyperventilation and That Danged Suffocation Alarm

Anxiety Disorders

“These panic attack symptoms are zoomin’ out of control, Mr. Bill. I’m sick and tired of anxiety disorders. Come on now, someone’s gotta’ help me make some sense of this. What’s behind it all? Something? Anything?”

In 1993 Dr. D.F. Klein came up with the idea that panic attacks may be generated by a false suffocation alarm. Wha? Well, according to Klein this mechanism detects high levels of carbon dioxide, which may exist as a result of a potentially low supply of oxygen.

Okay, surely you know by now that nailing-down for-sure mood and anxiety disorder causes – contributors – can be a dicey proposition. Panic attacks present that very dilemma; however, there’s some finger-pointing going-on – and here’s an interactive biggie…

Panic Attack Symptoms in the Lab

Bunches of what’s known about the biology of panic comes from laboratory provocation studies. Yep, scientists induce panic attacks through the administration of panic-inducing substances. The most common “panicogenics” used are sodium lactate (a natural salt derived from lactic acid), carbon dioxide, caffeine, and yohimbine.

These panicogenics do the job, and it’s interesting that for whatever reason the introduction of sodium lactate generates panic only in panic-diagnosed subjects.

Panic Attack Symptoms & Hyperventilation

Hyperventilation is a huge panic consideration. During hyperventilation a significant imbalance occurs between carbon dioxide (exhaled) and oxygen (inhaled), resulting in unusually low blood levels of carbon dioxide. The body’s efforts to correct the rate and balance of respiration causes panic-scary symptoms (jelly-legs, “lightheadedness,” tingling in the extremities, brown bag over nose and mouth?, etc.).

Fact is, hyperventilation leads to a build-up of lactic acid, which we just learned generates panic attacks. And, of course, the more we misinterpret and overact to the symptoms of hyperventilation, the more unbalanced our breathing becomes – which generates more symptoms. And everything very quickly snowballs out of control. Boom!

All of this hub-bub has many scientists arguing that panic sufferers are actually chronic “hyperventilators,” who seriously sabotage their breathing effort – breathing themselves into trouble during times of stress and anxiety.

Panic Attack Symptoms | Suffocation Monitor and Alarm

In 1993 Dr. D.F. Klein came up with the idea that panic attacks may be generated by a false suffocation alarm. Wha? Well, according to Klein this mechanism detects high levels of carbon dioxide, which may exist as a result of a potentially low supply of oxygen. (Hey, didn’t we just discuss carbon dioxide being used in the lab to trigger panic attacks?!)

So, yes, when high levels of carbon dioxide are detected the brain triggers a suffocation alarm indicating the amount of useful air is getting low. The body then goes into reparative-action to correct a perceived chemical imbalance, saving the body from suffocation. Only problem is, some of the physical responses generated by this reparative-action can be misinterpreted as panic – and the snowball continues to roll downhill.

The results of a brand-spankin’-new study published in Biological Psychiatry give us more insight into this suffocation alarm biz. The lead authors are Dr. Jordan W. Smoller (Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital) and Dr. Bruce M. Cohen (Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School).

Panic Attack SymptomsSeems previous research in mice showed the protein ASIC1a indirectly acts as a carbon dioxide sensor in the amygdala, a brain region huge in the perception of danger and fear – panic (red in the image). Well, an international team of scientists led by Smoller and Cohen have studied the human version of the ASIC1a gene, ACCN2  – and have come up with some cool findings.

The team sliced-and-diced ACCN2 variants in 414 folks with panic and 846 without. In a separate group of non-panics, the team examined potential genetic associations with amygdala volume and function in some 1200 subjects. Here’s Smoller on the findings…

We found that different forms or variants of the human ASIC1a gene appear to be associated with panic disorder. The effect was stronger in those whose panic attacks have prominent respiratory symptoms, including shortness of breath and feelings of suffocation.

Next, we found that the panic-associated variants in the ASIC1a gene are also associated with both the size of the amygdala and a greater amygdala response to emotional threat, even in people without panic disorder.

What’s that supposed to mean? According to Cohen…

Taken together, our results suggest that the (human) ASIC1a gene is a risk gene for panic disorder, as well as for the structure and function of the amygdala and its reaction to threat. They also raise the possibility that drugs that inhibit or modulate ASIC1a might be helpful in the treatment of panic or other forms of anxiety and fear.

So what do you think? I’m thinking this suffocation monitor and alarm chit-chat is the real deal.

That’s All, Folks!

I just love this stuff! I mean, it’s insight such as this that gave me so much hope when I was lost in the woods with panic attack symptoms and other anxiety disorders all those years ago.

And that’s what I want for you – the hope that comes from serious research, practical applications, and gaining insight into what goes on in that noggin of yours. So there…


Hey, tip of the hat to Elsevier for the research scoop.

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  • Cathy | Treatment Talk December 15, 2014, 10:26 am

    Great information here Bill on panic attacks. I’ve never suffered from one, but I know of a couple of people that do, and it can be a real hinderance to their daily life. Thanks for sharing the research! I learn something new every time I stop by!

    • Chipur December 15, 2014, 4:40 pm

      Well, the more resource material we have at our fingertips, the more options for healing. So much of the skill of living with emotional/mental challenges (and it really is a skill) is derived from education. Much of that is from the school of hard knocks, and buckets come from good old fashion book learning like this – and life application.

      Always glad to see you’ve paid a visit and commented, Cathy. Thank you…

  • Patricia Miller December 15, 2014, 5:47 pm

    This is major cool to me because my first panic attack and the onset of my adult onset asthma were within weeks of each other. Now this wasn’t mentioned and I have no clue if the two are in any way connected, yet I do know I’ve learned over time to pay good attention to addressing my asthma proactively lest it initiate panic issues later. I do enjoy this great research and learning.

    • Chipur December 15, 2014, 6:51 pm

      Hey, thanks for stoppin’ on by, Patricia. Always happy to see you. Good catch on the asthma, because I say anything that impacts/impedes our breathing can generate panic – and vice-versa. Doesn’t take ‘Ole Uncle Siggy to figure that one out, right? From Doc Smoller above – “The effect was stronger in those whose panic attacks have prominent respiratory symptoms, including shortness of breath and feelings of suffocation.” I’m thinking that gets you in the ballpark. Appreciate your contribution…


  • BCat January 3, 2015, 3:47 pm

    Interesting. How about this…. Going down the links rabbit hole, I eventually came to Wikipedia’s blurb on lactic aciddosis, a condition brought about by some physical disorders and some drugs (Metformin being one!) that cause an inability to excrete lactic acid. Also STRESS causes the tissues and blood to become more acidic. Some of the symptoms are low oxygen levels, the mitochrondria unable to process adequate energy, stiffness of muscles (lactic acidosis is responsible for rigor mortis!) and panic attacks!! Hyperventilation can cause lactic acidosis as well. The treatment for severe acidosis is intravenous sodium bicarbonate – baking soda. But little evidence as to if drinking baking soda works.

    So, I tried a little experiement. After a 4 year sojourn in hell, I developed severe panic disorder. One and a half years of non-stop panic attacks. No meds touched it. They eventually subsided, but never completely went away – always anxious. I also have fibromyalgia which was reactivated after the prolonged stress, and the worst symptoms have been a burning bubbling discomfort in all my muscles. I put a teaspoon of baking soda mixed in water with some honey for the icky taste. And guess what! About 10 minutes later, the burning went away. First time in a year! I’m also feeling more ‘bright’, is all I can explain it. Now, we’ll see if the urge to panic goes away as well. Wouldn’t something this simple be something special? Occam’s razor. Oh, baking soda can leach calcium, so best to ‘bone’ up with extra.

    • Chipur January 4, 2015, 3:10 pm

      Hey, BCat – welcome back. Nice hearing from you once more. Your research is excellent and I’m glad you shared it with us. The flow of panic is utterly amazing – and relief may, in fact, be as simple as that teaspoon of baking soda of yours (with some extra calcium). What a great discovery, a process of connecting the dots and good common sense. Nice job! Update us, k?

      Yes, Occam’s razor. For those who aren’t familiar with it, according to Wikipedia: The principle states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but—in the absence of certainty—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better. Here’s a link to the entire article. Interesting reading.

      Thanks, BCat. Your contributions are always appreciated…


      • BarbCat February 10, 2015, 6:59 pm

        An update on sodium bicarbonate. There’s tons of research and anecdotal studies on baking soda and our PH balance. I’ve been taking 1/2 teaspoon twice a day which really, really helps my acid reflux problem but so far, nothing truly exciting as regards to panic disorder. Except for maybe once or twice recently when I’ve felt panic coming on (I’ve been going through one of my ‘spells’), taking 1 teaspoon seemed to smooth things out and maybe curb the downward spiral. But you don’t wanna take too much or it will cause too much alkalinity.

        The calcium issue is one that generates some considerations. Turns out that wi-fi signals generate electromagnetic heat that disrupts the ionic calcium levels at our neuronal calcium/sodium channel gates. Too much calcium is let into the channel, which disrupts electrical cell transmission causing many disorders, including electric regulation of the heart, as well as perhaps the escalating autism we’re seeing. But most definitely anxiety issues.

        Makes me wonder if the dietary and supplemental calcium we take, especially for putative bone health, affects ionic calcium levels inside the cell? If so, maybe calcium ain’t such a good idea and maybe strontium is the ticket for bone health. And if this is true, are there any supplements/meds that can correct overbalanced calcium? Maybe magnesium? Which brings me to magnesium bicarbonate which I’ve been making (Milk of Magnesia and carbonated tonic water method) and taking and so far, along with sodium bicarbonate, the burning painful muscle thing is no longer bothering me. Here’s a funny/alarming article on the intent to put wi-fi transceivers into animals, sheep, so we can chat and text while hiking in the Grand Canyon. Will we ever learn?

      • Chipur February 10, 2015, 7:15 pm

        Ty, BC. Dang your knowledge is strong. So glad you bring it our way. The more info we can make available to all, the more good we’ll do…

      • BarbCat February 12, 2015, 12:29 pm

        Hugs to you, Bill. Finding this discussion board has made a huge contribution to my Interesting Times soft of life. All the stuff you bring forth…

      • Chipur February 12, 2015, 6:58 pm

        Well, thank you, BarbCat. You know, I really, really enjoy it. So let’s see what this noggin of mine can come up with next week?????????????

      • BarbCat February 12, 2015, 8:02 pm

        Can’t wait!