There was a sudden pounding in my chest, blood rushing to my head, and sense that life suddenly seemed unreal. I did not know what was happening, but somehow, instantaneously, panic had consumed me. I was eight years old, sitting in my third grade classroom, listening along as my favorite teacher was reading us a story.
I interrupted her mid-sentence, which was uncharacteristic of the shy girl I was at that age, and yelled out, “I have to use the bathroom!” I will never forget the startled look on her face as she granted me permission. I rushed out of the classroom, took a sip from the water fountain, and washed my hands, doing anything that could make me feel normal again. I regained composure and returned to my seat within minutes, utterly frightened and bewildered with what had just happened to me, and embarrassed to have drawn attention to myself.
I associated this experience with medical causality, and kept telling my eight-year-old self I was suffering from a gastric related disease or perhaps there was a tumor growing in my brain. Instead of accurately describing what had happened, which was a
I told my parents I had had a bad stomach ache that day. I could not articulate the foreign, sharp stab of fear I felt in my belly. For years thereafter, I suffered infrequent, random panic attacks and was still unable to articulate what I was struggling with, instead describing these episodes in terms of somatic (bodily) symptoms rather than psychological ones. Thanks to researchers, doctors and psychologists, we have made a dent in discovering neural mechanisms that are responsible for our physiological sensations or behaviors.
What I initially thought to be a somatic medical condition was what I eventually learned to be a product of my brain’s over-excited flight-or-fight activation response. But why did this happen to me?
Doctors still do not quite have a perfect answer. There is yet much to be learned about pathways in the brain and how they affect our mind and body. The brain is made up of nanoscopic particles called biomolecules, and these molecules make up the cells of the brain, called neurons. These neurons communicate with one another via electrical currents that create synapses, and when these synapses misfire, disease can transpire. MRI scans and microscopes can only allow us to see either large regions of the brain affected, or the microscopic level of neural activity. Because there are billions of neurons and subsequent connections, there is great difficulty in pinpointing specific patterns of molecular activity that cause brain disorders due to the sheer magnitude of neurons and infinitesimal nature of the brain.