• Dr Emily Barney

What causes Panic? And why intelligence has nothing to do with rational thinking

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

In light of COVID-19, this short blog is designed to explain from a neuropsychological perspective how anxiety and panic are created, at what point it becomes unhelpful and some advice on how to manage it.

The stressed out brain:

The ability of our brains to make a proper assessment of each situation (such as COVID-19) has nothing to do with how clever we are and everything to do with our stress levels at the time of making the assessment. When the brain is all of a sudden bombarded with potentially life-threatening information, with no previous template for how to respond, this can quickly become overwhelming and stressful. If the brain then becomes highly stressed it will quickly start to wire itself to perceive situations in a negative way. It’s threat detector (amygdala) will become overactive and highly sensitive and the neural connections to previous memories of threatening situations are likely to also be re-activated for quick retrieval at an overwhelming intensity. The brain in this state becomes a master at overthinking, and can be very persuasive.

Maybe ask yourself the following....

Do you feel calm in life at the moment? Do you feel certain that you can cope with the new and unknown potential threats in the environment? Are you confident that things will be alright and you will “weather the storm?”

If you have nodded in agreement then good for you. You are most likely connected to resources in your brain right now that will help you to cope with life and this “opportunity” it has given us. Others may see this more like a “curveballs” or even a “grenade.” If you don’t see yourself in the above description right now, you are probably in the majority of people and you can be reassured that your brain:

1) Is reacting exactly as it is designed to, and

2) Has the ability to reconnect to the regions that will help you to feel calmer and able to cope with this situation.

What causes Panic?

Panicking, i.e. to suddenly feel so worried or frightened that you cannot think or behave calmly or reasonably is created in the primitive/emotional part of the brain - the limbic system, which we all have. Therefore, we all have the potential to experience panic.

Yet we don’t. Why is this?

To explain this, lets start with the knowledge that all of us experience the same automatic stress response when we experience a new perceived threat in the environment, i.e. an increased heart rate and blood pressure, a churning of the stomach, sweaty palms, more blood pumped to our major muscle groups, etc. This response will occur quickly outside of our conscious control because our brains are designed this way to keep us alive, to react quickly, to give us the power and strength to ether fight the perceived threat in front of us, run away from it, or freeze and wait until the threat has passed. This is a great response to an acute threat such as meeting a polar bear in the street but not such a great response when dealing with the stress of life, such as bills, arguments with our partners or mass viral epidemics.

After the initial automatic response above, the threat information travels to the conscious part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) where we can decide whether the primitive mind needs to stay on high alert or not. A brain that is reasonably calm in its life context and that isn’t flooded with stress hormones, has a decent amount of serotonin flowing through it and therefore will be able to take in more of the information in the situation and weigh this information up in a more curious and intellectual way. A stressed out brain will jump to a quick, negative conclusion that keeps the primitive brain regions activated and a feeling of general anxiety for the individual.

We can recognise when we are operating mainly from the primitive part of our brains because our thoughts will tend to have the following qualities:

1) They will be negative and will often quickly jump to the worst possible scenario 2) They are obsessional. The mind will keep going over and over the problem and can’t let it go, thoughts can become racing and out of control

3) The brain becomes vigilant. The brain in this state perceives threat and danger to be all around so stays on high alert.

This negative thinking creates the anxiety which can quickly become overwhelming.

So when does anxiety lead to panic?

Panic occurs when the negative thinking becomes catastrophic in quality, i.e. a perceived loss to life is considered likely, or when certain bodily sensations like chest pains are misinterpreted as indicating a catastrophe, such as a heart attack or loss of control. When we are in panic mode, we are blinkered, the brain will not try new ways of dealing with situations, not if it is convinced it knows how to ensure its survival, i.e. excessively stock piling paracetamols and hand gels, etc. It becomes primarily concerned with survival of itself and its tribe.

Ways to reduce anxiety and panic

The human brain does not like change. Even the calmest of people will be unable to stop the primitive part of their brains becoming activated when a change in the environment occurs. The brain has to decide whether the change is a threat or not. When things are going well we are able to efficiently make a proper assessment of this change and confidently decide on the appropriate course of action without it taking up too much time and attention. The difficulty we have currently with COVID-19 is that there is a lot of information for the brain to process all at once and it is hard to not get primitive and start jumping to all the ‘knock-on’ effects and worst case scenarios. So we can be helpful to ourselves by being kind and patient with ourselves and others and give ourselves time to process this information without reacting, we do not have to make decisions right away.

If you feel an anxiety or worry that you can’t shift, it may be helpful to know that your brain has a built in mechanism to process emotional build up from the day, it is called REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement). “Processing” means that the brain physically moves the memory from the primitive emotional part of the brain, to the cerebral cortex where it puts a narrative to it and can have control over it. So why not tell yourself, tomorrow is a new day, a new opportunity to start fresh (and leave it to your REM to do the work). If you are overloading yourself with too much negative thinking, you may likely be getting broken sleep and therefore your brain won’t be able to process all the emotions as effectively. If this is the case, please contact us at and we will be happy to send you a download to listen to that will help improve sleep.

Focusing the mind on the problem usually leads to more negative thinking and more anxiety. The human brain has the ability to adapt in any situation if connected to the right brain regions. By making a decision in moments throughout each day to focus your mind on something other than COVID-19 this will help enormously. I would recommend something positive. You might like to start by keeping a daily record of “what has been good?” as the mind focuses on what it is achieving, it builds in confidence and starts to build up serotonin. When a constant flow of serotonin kicks in, this is what creates a feeling of calmness and certainty that you can cope with this situation.

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