What are panic attacks and what causes them?
Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder when someone experiences recurring panic attacks. Someone with panic disorder has feelings of anxiety, stress and panic regularly and at any time, quite often for no apparent reason.
Although panic attacks can seem to emerge from nowhere, there is always a trigger or a cause, even if you do not remember or know consciously what this is. It could stem from recent or past events, or a culmination of events sometimes going back as far as childhood and is incorrectly linked to the ‘fight-or-flight’ or ‘protection’ mechanism, pumping the body with adrenaline in order to give you a surge of energy enabling you to run from the imminent ‘perceived’ danger, or acquire a brief power surge to fight.
Back in caveman days, threats were constant and danger surrounded us at all times. And so our ancestors developed the stress response to help us survive. It was an essential and often a life-saving mechanism designed to protect us from dangers such as wild animals. When the adrenaline is unused to either fight or flight, the adrenaline overload causes symptoms of anxiety which can then lead to a panic attack. Be rest assured, you are not alone, attacks can be very scary but they are very common.
Finding the cause of your panic attack is essential
A panic attack is a protective response. If you are having a panic attack, you have linked your fight-or-flight mechanism to the wrong thing: a perceived danger not a real danger. If you are unsure what has triggered this, you need to look for clues:
- Consider your first panic attack. Where were you and what was happening around you? What was going on in your life at the time? Write down every detail of that moment.
- Keep a diary of when you have a panic attack or feel your anxiety levels rising. Note where you are, what you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. What are you thinking about? Do any of your answers have ties to a past anxious, upsetting or traumatic event?
- Consider whether you have had any previous negative experiences in that location or a similar location. For example, you may have had a panic attack in a supermarket, and walking into another supermarket triggers your fight-or-flight response.
- Complete a timeline of traumatic life events. For example, Age 3 – bitten by a dog. Age four – parents leaving me on my first day at school. Age 10 – losing my grandmother. Age 15 being bullied. Age 19 – having my heartbroken. Age 25 – car accident. Age 36 – made redundant from work. Now when you reflect on these negative life events, do they create any negative emotions today? Are there any links to the circumstances of your original panic attack? If so, these need to be challenged and changed positively.
- Try to pinpoint any schema created in those negative events. For example, if you were bullied, your schema might be “I’m not good enough”, or if you had a car accident at a petrol station, you might have created the schema “I am vulnerable at petrol stations.”
- Challenge your schemas. If you created them in childhood, consider the accuracy. Children often inflate situations or completely misinterpret them. If you created them as an adult, how could your summary of the original event be altered? How could it be perceived as less personal, less emotional, less frightening? For example: “What are the chances of that happening again?” “I may have felt in danger but I survived.” “I would act differently now I’m older and wiser, so the event would have an entirely different outcome now.”
- Try these tips to reduce panic attacks
Living with panic attacks can be extremely challenging, however, you are not alone. Here at Trauma Research UK, our belief is, ‘it’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you’. With this philosophy, we believe that everyone can successfully overcome their mental health issues if given the right help and support. Read more…
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