The Anatomy Of A Panic Attack

Are there places you can’t go in case you have a panic attack? Are there things you can’t do for fear of panic?

A few Alexander Technique lessons will help most people to let go of panic attacks.

I had a girlfriend who could not go to courts or hospitals for fear of a panic attack.

“If you’d free your neck and think up, you wouldn’t have a panic attack,” I said to her.

My advice did not go over well. She just got mad at me.

It’s always easier to get mad at others rather than to take responsibility for your own situation.

So what happens when you have a panic attack?

The first thing that you notice will be a flooding sensation of fear, but you won’t get this without certain physiological responses to a stimulus.

If your neck is free and you have upward direction through your torso, in other words, if you are buoyant, you won’t be disabled by fear. To truly experience fear, you have to tighten and to compress your neck and to pull down and in on yourself. As you tighten up and compress, shoving your anxiety into your gut where the bile will likely flow up in reaction to your clenching, you’ll be flooded by fear and other unpleasant symptoms such as a racing heart.

With your neck and torso tight and your shoulders hunched, your lungs will have less room to expand and breath will become more difficult.

By contrast, if you refuse to tighten and to compress your neck, and instead expand into activity, your torso lengthening and widening and your face free of compression and your limbs loose, you’ll be tranquil. You won’t be a drama queen. You won’t need to demand that everybody pay attention to you and submit to your emotional and physiological blackmail.

Wikipedia says: “First, there is frequently (but not always) the sudden onset of fear with little provoking stimulus. This leads to a release of adrenaline (epinephrine) which brings about the so-called fight-or-flight response wherein the person’s body prepares for strenuous physical activity. This leads to an increased heart rate (tachycardia), rapid breathing (hyperventilation) which may be perceived as shortness of breath (dyspnea), and sweating (which increases grip and aids heat loss). Because strenuous activity rarely ensues, the hyperventilation leads to a drop in carbon dioxide levels in the lungs and then in the blood. This leads to shifts in blood pH (respiratory alkalosis or hypocapnia), which in turn can lead to many other symptoms, such as tingling or numbness, dizziness, burning and lightheadedness. Moreover, the release of adrenaline during a panic attack causes vasoconstriction resulting in slightly less blood flow to the head which causes dizziness and lightheadedness.”

Greg Leake emails: Hi Luke,
I’ ve been keeping up a little with your directions and discussions about the Alexander Technique. I distinctly remember some occasions when proper body mechanics and awareness of the direction of my head helped put some panic attacks in abeyance.

On one occasion I remember looking across to the other side of the ring and not being particularly pleased by what I saw. In addition to having a mean disposition, the gentlemen on the other side of the ring had a washboard stomach, defined pectoral, muscular deltoids and arms, and a bull neck.

As the bell rang and he came forward, I immediately remembered my proper head mechanics. I tucked my chin downward to press against my chest in a cramped position so that I would not be hit in the chin and get knocked out.

With my left foot forward I shuffled forward, with my weight balanced between my forward left foot and the toes of my right foot.

As he began to swing, I felt a rise in tachycardia and a certain amount of hyperventilation, amplified by the mouthpiece clenched between my teeth to prevent those same teeth from being knocked out.

I slipped his left jab to the outside position. This is actually a movement done with the body and the feet, not the head. Now as I was on the outside guard position, my head was in rough proximity to his left elbow. Wishing to encourage him to feel that his head was moving upward and forward, I hit him in the chin with a left uppercut. This encouraged his head to move upward, whereupon i swung my body in an arc and hit him with a right hook in an attempt to remove the head that I had helped to move to a more Alexander-Technique-approved position. As he was now wide open, I hit him with a left hook on the other side of the face, moving from the initial Jack Dempsey combination to a popular Mike Tyson combination.

As he lay on the floor, i began to feel a sense of well-being. My tachycardia and hyperventilation began to diminish because of my proper use of good body mechanics.

Learning to increase body inhibition and placing the head and torso into a constrained position was a big help to me that day, and as a consequence I became a big believer in the proper use of the body to help overcome social awkwardness, inhibition, and physical tension.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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