Often when dealing with Panic Attacks I have found that people confuse their bodily sensations and attribute their feelings to something more sinister. For example when they feel their heart beating rather rapidly and / or get palpitations they very seldom look for a simple cause. This is because these symptoms appear to arrive “out of the blue” and cannot be accounted for. As rational people we try to find a cause for our symptoms however, when symptoms are unable to be explained we begin to make assumptions that the symptoms are a sign that something is wrong.
We are neurologically primed to learn from experiences. The reason for this is so that we can protect ourselves for future events, particularly if the feeling is thought to be negative in nature. Once an unhelpful event happens we are, in effect, “on guard”, or at least our body is on “guard”. This can set up a “panic pattern” when the next incident that occurs is not resolved appropriately. People with panicky feelings tend to become intensely aware or watchful of sensations in the body.
Interestingly dehydration can often lead to these same symptoms occurring. In essence when a person is dehydrated the body has to compensate for the low blood pressure. It does this by making the heart beat faster to ensure that enough blood travels through the body. Most people are able to attribute these sensations to say having just done a workout or recognise that they have had less fluid over the day, etc, and can normalise them. However once in a panicky situation these sort of explanations seem implausible.
I have found in, my practice, that when people are stressed or anxious they can become chronically dehydrated. I also propose that people with addictions to alcohol, drugs and cigarette smoking whom go onto to develop panic feelings, that their panicky feelings may be in part as a result of chronic dehydration. I believe that when a person stops drinking alcohol their interest in replacing the alcohol with other fluid drops dramatically, causing them to become dehydrated. Thus their panicky feelings might just be initially switched on as a result of the compensatory effect of the body trying to raise the blood pressure.
In the case of heavy smoking, however, the blood supply to peripheral blood vessels is often decreased. When a person smokes the sympathetic nervous system is constantly being stimulated and the blood vessels in the hands and feet are constricted. This can result in an increase of the central circulating volume which results in a raised blood pressure. When people stop smoking this mechanism is no longer in play. The peripheral circulation now increases as the blood vessels dilate. This might not be a problem but if this happens very quickly then this might lead to a decrease of the central volume causing a rapid lowering of the blood pressure. The body’s compensatory mechanism is to again cause the heart to respond by beating rapidly.
A simple start to helping people with panic disorder is to ensure that they are appropriately hydrated. Of course this in no way diminishes the need for other psychological work or physical tests to be done. However it may go a long in mitigating bodily sensations occurring as a result of dehydration effects that may be wrongly attributed to as “panicky feelings!”