The Causes of Panic Attacks:
Laying the groundwork - 2

Stress can be like water dripping into a bucket, it may not seem like a problem until it overflows.

Stress accumulates

For some people, the causes of panic attacks develop their roots after a particularly traumatic event or period of intense stress such as being involved in violence, looking after a very ill loved one or going through a difficult divorce. Perhaps more commonly, however, stress can be accumulated if you don’t have any strategies in place to release it.

It is common for people to respond to this by saying “but I started feeling anxious when I was relaxed – the stressful period was over”.

However, it is often when the difficult or stressful period is over that fear and anxiety problems emerge. In a similar way, many of you will be familiar with the experience of staying well whilst the pressure is on at work and immediately falling sick once you take a holiday. The pressure is taken off and the body has a reaction as it tries to re-establish balance.

Staying on 'red alert'

Whilst under stress you are using the body’s stress chemicals to help you deal with whatever challenge it is you’re facing. When you are very busy you may not notice the body going out of balance and any feelings of anxiety you have seem quite normal and appropriate in the circumstances.

Once the challenging period is over, the body doesn’t automatically stop its ‘red alert’ status – just in case there’s another danger lurking out there somewhere. This was a very useful feature of our physiology in pre-historic times. The genes of the family who stayed alert after tackling a sabre-toothed tiger would have survived rather than those of the relaxed family in the next cave who just went back to sleep when they thought the danger was over and were consequently gobbled up by the other sabre-toothed tiger’s mate!

Unfortunately, staying on ‘red alert’ after the challenge has passed is not a very useful feature these days and of all the causes of panic attacks this is number one – so we all have some retraining to do in terms of how we respond to perceived stress so that the body doesn’t go on red alert so easily – but more of this later.

Stress is not always obvious

It may be that the stress that was one of the main underlying causes of your panic attacks was not very obvious. As an analogy, think of a bucket with a tap dripping water into it. The water drips slowly but consistently until after what may be a very long period of time one last drop of water is enough to make the bucket overflow. Though circumstances haven’t changed – there’s still just a slow and steady drip of water – the bucket keeps overflowing with each tiny drop and will continue to do so until some of the water is emptied out. Anxiety symptoms are a little like this. 

Your body may have been experiencing the symptoms of stress for some considerable time before the development of chronic anxiety or panic disorder – but those symptoms were still within the range of what people might consider normal:

  • restlessness, 
  • poor sleep, 
  • growing discontent, 
  • vague uneasiness, 
  • irritability, 
  • body tensions, 
  • aches and pains, 
  • difficulty relaxing, and so on.

Out of the blue

If the stress continues to accumulate, eventually stronger symptoms may start to develop, very often seemingly out of the blue.

There may not have been a significant event that you are aware of that caused this to happen. It probably occurred on a quite normal day when one last small stress caused the body to experience an overload and you began to experience the symptoms that are so unpleasant and for some people extremely frightening.

What you need to do is to start emptying the bucket!

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