How Breathing Can Lead to Panic

This footage was taken from inside the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet piloted by Air National Guard Captain Chris H. Rose. In June, 1996, he was flying back to his base from a training mission when his engine failed with a loud bang. Here’s what happened next:


At the time of the accident, Rose was at an altitude of 13,000 feet, and above a layer of thick clouds. Immediately he turned in the direction of the nearest airstrip, at the Elizabeth City Coast Guard base. But where was it? With the help of his fellow pilots in the squadron he found his way through the clouds and broke out into clear air at 7,000 feet. From there, it was just a question of keeping his wits while nursing his damaged aircraft onto the runway.

What’s particularly interesting to me is the sound of Rose’s breathing, clearly audible on the tape’s audio track.  While it sounds heavy — clearly the breathing of a man under stress — it’s not excessively fast. He was not on the verge of hyperventilation. If he had been, he might well have lost control and panicked.

The connection between breathing and self-control has been recognized for centuries, but only recently has a scientific connection between the two been identified. Last week, the journal Cell published a paper in which researchers at the University of Iowa described how protein channels in the cell walls of neurons in the amygdala were found to be sensitive to varying levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. The amygdala is the region within the limbic system of the brain that plays a central role in coordinating the fear response. By blocking this channel, researchers were able to mute the fear response of rats.

This discovery helps explain how panic attacks can seem to strike out of the blue. In a time of stress, a person might subconsciously breathe too quickly, leading to excess levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. The amygdala, responding automatically to these increased levels, triggers a suite of physiological responses, such as  sweating, increased heart rate — and faster breathing. A vicious cycle takes hold, as hyperventilation leads to ever-higher levels of carbon dioxide.  All of a sudden the victim of the attack finds herself in the grip of an intense physical reaction without any idea why.

If this model is correct, then there’s a potentially very positive upshot. A drug that can block the protein channel might help prevent panic attacks and other related anxiety disorders. Who knows — it might even come in handy for pilots who lose their engines at 13,000 feet.