The causes of panic attacks :
Your reaction to the triggers

Ultimately, the causes of panic attacks are found in how you react to the weird and unsettling symptoms that can develop once your physiology has been pushed too far by stress.

So this is how it works:

  • You’ve sensitised your body/mind (physiology) by acute or accumulated stress.
  • If you do nothing to restore balance, or you experience even more stress, this may eventually lead to symptoms (particularly if you have the kind of constitution that makes you more susceptible).
  • Your body may eventually become restless and nervous. It may develop a variety of other unpleasant symptoms, such as racing or skipped heartbeats, difficulty breathing, feelings of unreality and so on.

This is the point where it’s your mind and your reactions that make the difference between whether you feel overwhelmed and become caught up in a vicious cycle of anxiety and panic or not.

The situation is similar to what occurs, for instance, if you drink too much coffee. If you have enough coffee you will eventually start to feel jittery, irritable and nervous (for some people one cup may be enough!).

If you know that coffee contains caffeine and can produce these kinds of symptoms then, whilst it’s unpleasant, you would probably be able to accept that your body is feeling this way because it’s been thrown out of balance by the coffee and you wait for the sensations to pass.

However, if you didn’t know anything about the effects of coffee, the chances are you would allow your thoughts to get involved.

  • You would probably start to wonder why you were feeling so bad.
  • You might start to make matters worse by resisting the symptoms, feeling afraid of what’s happening to you.
  • Because the body is agitated your thoughts will reflect this.
  • Before you know it, you may well be having a major anxiety or panic attack as your thoughts exacerbate the condition.
  • This creates even stronger sensations in the body that are frightening.
  • If you don’t understand what’s going on, the level of fear experienced can spiral out of control as fearful thinking increases the physical symptoms of fear.
  • If you let things go that far and you have also made an association between drinking coffee and its effects, the body may become so sensitised by the experience that just a few sips of coffee may be enough to bring about a similar experience on another occasion, as the mind projects fear about what may happen if you drink coffee again.

This is fundamentally what can happen with our symptoms of anxiety – we don’t understand where they’ve come from and we become fearful of the fear.

The cycle then, goes something like this:

Initial imbalance (caused by one or more aggravating factors)

Symptoms of nervous system aggravation appear.

Physiology is disturbed therefore thoughts are disturbed.

Worry and confusion about what’s happening lead to ...

focussing even more on symptoms and disturbing thoughts

Increased intensity of symptoms with thoughts of catastrophe about dying, insanity, heart attack etc.)

Major anxiety/panic

Increased imbalance leading to more disturbed thoughts, symptoms become more intense and entrenched and now there’s fear of it happening again

Increased/more frequent symptoms/more fear

and so on.

Clearly what you need to do is break the pattern somewhere. The great news is that even if your thoughts are agitated there still remains a part of you that is able to observe this. Using this ability, the brain is capable of stopping the anxiety loop. This is especially true if you really understand why the body/mind is reacting this way.

So, returning to how the process of the three causes of panic attacks works:

  • Laying the groundwork
  • Developing a trigger
  • Reacting to the trigger

What you need to do is tackle each of these three causes of panic attacks separately to really get to the heart of the problem and maximise your chances of the speediest recovery possible by:

  • Undoing the groundwork by settling the nervous system, getting your body back in balance and releasing built up stress (see reducing anxiety)
  • Understand the trigger for what it is - a sensitive point for you but harmless in itself
  • Develop a new way of reacting to the trigger so that the panic dissipates rather than builds up (see stop panic attacks)

This way the underlying causes of panic attacks are rendered powerless.


There is so much you can do to help this process!

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