Anxiety attacks are fundamentally a response to danger and consist of three components. Many people believe that anxiety is a prolonged nervous condition of feeling worried or stressed but in fact the function of the anxiety response is to deal with danger through the body’s fight or flight reaction. The unpleasant physical changes involved in this reaction include increased heart rate, quickened breathing, sweating, trembling, flushes, stomach churning and nausea.
The second part of anxiety attacks response is the behavioural aspect. For example say if you were threatened with an attack while you were walking to your car after work, first you would feel the physical aspects of anxiety as mentioned above; you then may choose to run or fight your attacker (fight/flight) then as a behavioural response you may change where you park your car at night.
The difference between humans and animals lies in the third part of the anxiety response, the thinking or psychological part. Humans will not get anxious unless they think they are in danger. Anxiety becomes a problem when our thinking about a situation becomes unrealistic by overestimating the danger we face. When a person repeatedly overestimates the real danger of situations, either the likelihood or how bad the consequences would be, problematic anxiety is the result i.e. anxiety attacks.
As a result of the psychological and physical consequences of anxiety attacks people may change their behaviour. They may be too afraid to do things that might make the anxiety worse and develop ways to avoid situations that they fear. They might ask for frequent reassurances from others that things are OK. They might be too frightened to do things alone or be very concerned about certain everyday situations or objects. People who know them may notice they appear tired, since anxiety will keep people up at night. Constant anxiety can lead to depression.
When a person begins to avoid activities of daily living, or activities they used to enjoy, anxiety can take over their life, interfering with work, family and social life.