The Causes of Panic Attacks and How they Develop

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To many observers and sufferers the causes of Panic Attacks are a total mystery. At first sight they appear to happen at random and for no obvious reason whatsoever. This makes them even more scary to the sufferer.

In my own case I suppose I was lucky in this respect because I always knew that it was what I had been thinking about/imagining that had brought on even the first one I had when I was 10 years old. Nevertheless, that knowledge alone couldn't prevent my having them for the next 25 years or so until I finally managed to lose the habit.

Knowing the trigger in itself won't make them go away, but at least it lets the sufferer relax when those trigger situations aren't present.

Panic attacks are definitely not random. There is always a trigger. You may just not be aware of it.

Panic or anxiety attacks do form a pattern although this pattern may vary from person to person.

The physical symptoms of a panic attack are often also slightly different in different sufferers. Some people feel as if they are going to faint, some have chest pains and believe they might be having a heart attack, others fear they will vomit.

Regardless of the actual symptom which is feared, all anxiety attacks are self reinforcing and spiral in nature. The diagram on the page describing the symptom of feeling faint shows this.

The very first panic attack symptoms a sufferer experiences may happen for any reason. They may feel faint when waiting in a queue at the supermarket checkout, they may feel nauseous in a crowded pub, they may become breathless doing some physical activity and then over-breathe and feel dizzy. 

These are just a few possibilities, the list is endless.

This first experience may have happened for a physical reason. Nevertheless, it was not pleasant so the survival instinct tries to link the feeling with the place it happened so that it can warn you in good time to be careful if you find yourself in that situation again.

supermarket checkout panic

A panic attack is not a pleasant experience. Once someone has experienced a panic attack, they are determined to avoid another. Ironically, it's that very same determination to prevent another that actually helps to bring it on!

So a panic attack then develops in 5 steps like this...

Step 1

The survival instinct recognises that it's in a place where the person has had a fear response before. Survival instinct gives a "Be careful!" warning.

step 2

The person feels the warning and looks for what the danger may be. Then remembers what happened the last time. Person gets afraid it will happen again and starts checking body for the start of symptoms.

step 3

Survival instinct notices that the person has listened to its warning and has responded by getting more afraid. Survival instinct therefore decides there is danger. Survival instinct sets fight or flight in motion to save the person. 

step 4

Person notices heart beating faster and thinks this is confirmation that a panic attack is happening… Person now focusing only on looking for next symptoms and trying to stop them...

step 5

Survival instinct recognises that person is still getting more and more afraid so increases heart rate etc to save them...

And so it goes on…

It is reacting with more fear (raised negative arousal) in response to a survival instinct warning that causes the physical symptoms of fight or flight to be set into action, as shown previously.

What is very important to note, however, is that it is the, 'What if I panic?' thought that has actually caused the panic attack to happen.

So we can reduce the causes of panic attacks to one sentence:

A panic attack only happens if you join in with the warning!

This simple statement is the key to overcoming panic attacks but it is not as easy to do as it might appear to a non-sufferer. 

My own book on Panic Attack has recently been re-issuied by the publisher in both a print and electronic version...

"Panic Attacks"
A practical guide to recognising and overcoming feelings of panic.

For a start you have the survival instinct to deal with. Once it gets involved it locks the person's attention on whatever the source of the fear is - in this case the possibility of a panic attack. In general when our life is threatened we need to take avoiding action of fight or flight so the survival instinct is designed to keep your attention on the danger. Not focusing on it is not usually the easy option. In "My Story" I have described some of my own battles in this respect.

But, although the first panic attack is triggered by events which provoke anxiety in their own right, subsequent panic attacks are based totally around the fear of having another panic attack.

how to go about overcoming panic attacks

CLICK for more information on how to go about unlearning your panic habits over time.