written by: Jennifer Gunnerson
• edited by: Paul Arnold
• updated: 8/13/2010
The limbic system is made up of a highly complex system of fibers and matter that relays and interprets emotional information. This sophisticated system is thought to play a large part in the body's response to stress and anxiety and may play a major role in anxiety disorder and panic attacks.
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The definitive cause of panic attacks has been up for debate for decades. In recent studies, a new contender has emerged: the brain’s limbic system. What exactly is the limbic system and panic attacks connection? To answer this question it is important to first understand the way the limbic system is structured and how it affects the body and mind.
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The Limbic System
The brain is home to an incredibly complex series of systems, one of which is the limbic system. This system lies to either side of the thalamus, and directly below the cerebrum. The limbic system is comprised of several vital subsystems including the hippocampus, the amygdala and the hypothalamus. Many scientists believe that the limbic system plays a key role in the emotional life of humans and is also responsible for forming and retaining memories.
The limbic system can best be understood by imagining a limbic lobe that is formed by three structures. These structures all connect to the other parts of the brain by way of fibers that act as telephone lines to transmit information. This complex system of the limbic lobe and its information and connective fibers form the limbic system. This system is believed to be a highly primitive portion of the brain and is thought to be responsible for emotions, memories, learning and neuroendocrine functions. Medical conditions thought to result from malfunctions of the limbic system include: dementias, epilepsy, congenital syndromes and a variety of psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and panic disorders.
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Panic Attacks and the Limbic System Connection
The area of the brain that houses the limbic system is the area most involved in anxiety and panic disorders. It is believed that the limbic system is responsible for the actual processing of all information related to anxiety and panic. The information that is processed within the limbic system is then interpreted, at which time anxiety or panic is mediated.
It is hypothesized that when the limbic system is not working in perfect balance, the anxiety and panic related information is misinterpreted or an inappropriate response is triggered. One of the responses that the body has to panic is the fight or flight response. This is one of the triggers that the limbic system controls. After interpreting the anxiety information that the body passes along to the brain, the limbic system decides how great the perceived danger is and what the appropriate response should be. In some cases, the limbic system may in essence “over-react" and launch the fight or flight command to the body which is then experienced as a panic or anxiety attack. If the limbic system interprets anxiety as a perceived threat, it can cause the body to act as if it is in danger, a feeling that many report while experiencing an episode of panic.