Welcome to our blog on panic attacks—your guide to understanding the intense, unexpected surges of fear that affect countless lives worldwide.
Panic attacks are not uncommon and can be profoundly distressing. Today we will explore what panic attacks are, what causes them, and most importantly, how to cope with them. Let’s begin!
What are panic attacks?
A panic attack is like a sudden rush of intense fear or anxiety that makes you feel overwhelmed and out of control. It can happen without any warning and might last for a few minutes or even longer. During a panic attack, your body might react in strange ways. Your heart might race, you may have trouble breathing, and you might feel dizzy or lightheaded. You can feel very hot or cold, tremble or even shake. It can also feel like a pain in your chest or stomach, feeling like your legs are turning to jelly, and feeling totally disconnected from reality for a moment.
When a panic attack happens, it can feel like you’re dying. Not all panic attacks are the same or happen the same for everyone. You may feel shaky during one, and have a racing heartbeat and difficulty breathing another time. A friend may feel dizzy during their attacks and rarely feel shaky. Some may feel like throwing up. It can look different for each person. Let’s chat about what causes these unpleasant experiences.
Causes of Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks can happen for various reasons. Because they happen so fast, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what brings them on.
Here are some common causes of panic attacks:
- Anxiety Disorders: Panic attacks are commonly associated with anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, or specific phobias. These disorders cause a person to feel excessive and persistent worry or fear about various situations.
- Stressful Life Events: Significant life changes or stressful events, such as the loss of a loved one, financial problems, relationship issues, or work-related stress, can trigger panic attacks in some individuals.
- Genetics: There might be a genetic predisposition to anxiety and panic disorders. If someone in a person’s family has a history of panic attacks or other anxiety disorders, they may be at a higher risk of experiencing them as well.
- Neurotransmitter Imbalance: Imbalances in brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norepinephrine, can influence mood and anxiety levels, potentially contributing to panic attacks.
- Biological Factors: Some physical conditions, like an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) or an adrenal gland tumour (pheochromocytoma), can lead to panic attacks. Certain medications or substance use, such as excessive caffeine or stimulants, can also trigger panic attacks.
- Cognitive Factors: How a person thinks and perceives their surroundings can play a role in panic attacks. Catastrophic thoughts, constant worry, and irrational fears can heighten anxiety and lead to panic attacks.
- Personality Traits: Certain personality traits, like being highly sensitive or perfectionistic, can make someone more susceptible to experiencing panic attacks.
- Past Trauma: Experiencing a traumatic event in the past can leave emotional scars and lead to the development of anxiety disorders, including panic attacks.
Recognizing What Triggers a Panic Attack for You
Triggers for panic attacks can vary from person to person, as everyone’s experience is unique. If you or someone you know struggles with panic attacks, it can be helpful to start narrowing down on your triggers. Some common triggers for panic attacks include:
- Stressful Situations: High levels of stress, whether related to work, school, relationships, or other life events, can trigger panic attacks in susceptible individuals.
- Specific Phobias: Being confronted with a feared object or situation can lead to panic attacks. For example, if someone has a fear of flying, being on an airplane could trigger an attack.
- Social Anxiety: Social situations, especially those involving large crowds or public speaking, can trigger panic attacks in people with social anxiety disorder.
- Physical Sensations: Sensations such as shortness of breath, a racing heart, dizziness, or chest pain can sometimes trigger panic attacks, particularly if the person associates these sensations with past panic attacks.
- Cognitive Triggers: Certain thought patterns, such as catastrophic thinking or worrying about losing control, can contribute to the onset of panic attacks.
- Substance Use or Withdrawal: The use of stimulants, recreational drugs, or alcohol can trigger panic attacks, as can the withdrawal from certain substances.
- Traumatic Events: Past traumatic experiences, like accidents, abuse, or natural disasters, can sometimes lead to panic attacks, especially if the memories are triggered in some way.
- Hormonal Changes: Hormonal fluctuations, particularly in women during menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause, can contribute to panic attacks in some cases.
- Prolonged Avoidance: Avoiding situations that cause anxiety can lead to increased sensitivity to those situations over time, potentially triggering panic attacks when confronted with them.
It’s important to note that panic attacks can arise seemingly out of nowhere and without an obvious trigger. Sometimes, they may be a result of a combination of factors or a build-up of stress and anxiety over time.
What Happens During a Panic Attack?
During a panic attack, your body’s stress response system is activated, and you enter into what we call, “fight or flight” mode. Our brain sends signals to our body that there is a life-threatening danger in front of us, which makes our heart beat faster, our breath quicken, and our muscles tense up. All of this happens very quickly. And although it can feel quite terrifying, it doesn’t last forever. Once we can help our body and brain see that we’re not in any immediate danger, the signals stop firing, and our body starts to relax. Let’s talk about things we can do to help.
Coping with Panic Attacks
Assuming we are not in a life-threatening situation, our goal is to help our body and brain believe that we are not in danger.
Here are a few tips that can help:
- Breathing Techniques: When you feel a panic attack coming on, try taking slow, deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold for four, and then breathe out through your mouth for four counts. This slow-paced breathing will send signals to your brain and nervous system telling them it’s safe and ok to relax.
Grounding Techniques: Use grounding techniques to stay connected to the present moment. When you feel panic come on, if possible, stay where you are and lower yourself to the floor so you feel your body stable on the ground. Notice the solid floor beneath you.
- Mindfulness Techniques: Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment. Focus on things around you, like the sound of birds singing or the leaves blowing on the trees. It can help pull your attention towards something calming.
- Challenge Unhelpful Thoughts: Remind yourself that the panic attack is not life-threatening and will eventually pass. Have a reassuring thought you say on repeat- “I am safe- this feeling will pass”.
If you or someone you know experiences panic attacks, seeking help from a mental health professional can make a big difference. Treatment options such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), medication, relaxation techniques, and lifestyle changes can be effective in managing and reducing the frequency of panic attacks.
Feel free to reach out and we will book you in for a free consultation with one of LightHouse Counselling and Wellness’s experts in anxiety and panic. Remember, you are not alone!