“You know, if only I knew when a panic attack was coming. I could at least do something about it. I mean, who needs this out-of-the-blue business?”
I’m here to tell you “You can.” “You can.” “You don’t.”
We’re about to chat some panic-changing research. But before we set sail, let’s put a few terms and dynamics in our back pockets.
In psycho and medical babble, a prodrome is an early symptom(s) that may indicate the start of a disease – or episode – before the major symptom(s) presents.
Suffocation Alarm, Carbon Dioxide, Hyperventilation
Suffocation Alarm and Carbon Dioxide
In 1993, renowned panic researcher Dr. D.F. Klein introduced the idea that panic attacks may be generated by what he called a false suffocation alarm.
According to Klein, mammals have this super-sensitive alarm that detects high levels of carbon dioxide, which may exist as a result of a potentially low supply of oxygen.
When they’re detected, the brain triggers a suffocation alarm indicating the amount of useful air is getting low. The body then goes into action by initiating physical responses such as shortness of breath and hyperventilation.
Hyperventilation is excessive rate and depth of respiration that leads to abnormal loss of carbon dioxide from the blood. Some scientists have proposed that those enduring panic are actually chronic hyperventilators.
Feel Better Panic Attack Research
Okay, our knowledge foundation is solid. So let’s chat that panic-changing research I promised. Southern Methodist University psychologist Alicia E. Meuret led a very interesting and revealing panic attack study. The results were recently reported in the journal Biological Psychiatry.
Here’s how the work went down…
43 panic disorder diagnosed participants wore wires darned near everywhere, and fanny-pack monitors, twice for 24 hours. The monitors tracked eight panic-common physiological changes; including respiration, cardiac activity, and sweating.
Also included in the participant’s gear was a portable capnometer that monitored levels of carbon dioxide from their exhalations.
Each participant was also given a panic button, which they were to hit if a panic attack came to call. And they were asked to jot down their symptoms in the moment. Hitting the button inserted a time marker into the attack data.
Making for a meaningful study, the team was able to collect 1,960 hours of data; including the inside scoop on 13 unexpected panic attacks.
According to Meuret…
“The results were just amazing. We found that in this hour preceding naturally occurring panic attacks, there was a lot of physiological instability. These significant physiological instabilities were not present during other times when the patient wasn’t about to have a panic attack.”
It’s important to catch the full impact of what she said. The panic attacks didn’t come out-of-the-blue, because there were prodromal symptoms 60 minutes preceding.
News flash! The generation of a panic attack isn’t some sort of mysterious, “that came out of nowhere,” dynamic.
No, it’s just that panic sufferers are typically unaware of the accumulating pattern of very subtle physiological changes that occur before an attack.
And how ‘bout this? According to the research results, during the panic attacks themselves, there was very little physiological change.
And that’s telling, because most who endure panic attacks believe there has to be something physically dangerous going on when an attack hits. “Am I having a heart attack?” “I think I’m suffocating and I’m about to pass-out!”
Fact! None of the above. The hub-bub is simply (yes, I said that) grounded in cycling and snowballing. We’re talking an accumulation of very subtle changes, nothing extreme.
Oh, about suffocation alarms, carbon dioxide, and hyperventilation. The study team found that the participant’s carbon dioxide levels were in an abnormally low range. Without knowing it, the participants were chronically hyperventilating.
But just before the panic attack, their carbon dioxide levels rose significantly. And that correlated with reports of anxiety, fear of dying, and chest pain.
Seems to me some suffocation alarms were ringing.
Let’s Close: Bringing It All Home
In my opinion, the research brings real-life panic relief to your table. There’s a whole lot to say for the power of self-monitoring. If it’s not overdone, it can toss many a panic attack aside.
And that’s the power of working with prodrome. It’s a matter of gaining insight into how you work physiologically, detecting change, and employing healthy interventions.
But do you know what’s most powerful to me? Again, the fact that a panic attack isn’t a mysterious “who knows where that came from” phenomenon.
Don’t you think that makes panic so very beatable?!
Put together strategies to make this research work for you. And practice, practice, practice!