• Pounding heart

  • Sweating

  • Trembling

  • Shortness of breath

  • Feeling of choking

  • Chest pain

  • Nausea

  • Feeling dizzy faintness

  • Feelings of unreality

  • Fear of losing control

  • Fear of going crazy

  • Fear of dying 

  • Numbness or tingling

  • Chills or hot flashes  

Panic Attack Causes 

Stress and Anxiety

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Chronic stress adds up overtime.  If you don’t find a way to cope with the stress, your body will respond with anxiety.  This leaves you vulnerable to panic attacks. 

 

A buildup of stress from life events such as losing a job, death of a loved one, or divorce may cause symptoms of anxiety that could lead to a panic attack.

 

Our bodies experience a physiological response to these stresses that could lead to symptoms of panic

Thinking and Behavior

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Greek philosopher René Descartes said, "I Think, Therefore I Am." 

I think anxious thoughts, therefore I am anxious. Catastrophic thoughts turn on the body's fight or flight stress response that could lead to panic attacks. 

 

Behaviorally avoiding situations that are associated with panic attacks only temporarily relieves anxiety.  Avoidance actually strengthens anxiety and panic.

Vicious Cycle of Panic

 

(1) The Trigger can be a thought or a situation

(2) You then Perceive Danger.  The thought or situation can be of an internal (Physical) or external (Phobic) threat.  An example of an unhelpful thought for an internal threat is “My heart feels like it is beating fast.  I must be having a heart attack.”  An example of an unhelpful thought for an external threat is, “This plane that I’m on could crash.” 

 

(3) This causes more Fear and Apprehension of the perceived danger. 

 

(4) The sympathetic nervous system automatically kicks in and Increases Physiological Sensations.

 

(5) You Label the Sensations as Catastrophic, you panic, and this confirms the danger. 

 

Your Perceived Danger increases and the cycle continues.  This becomes a vicious cycle of panic.  Avoiding the situation or running away also falsely confirms that the danger is real and gives more power to future panic attacks.

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The sympathetic nervous system is also known as the fight or flight system.  Just remember that the sympathetic nervous system "Sympathizes" with you in times of danger.  It is fast, automatic, and is activated mostly without your conscious control.  This why you feel out of control and fear of losing control or going crazy.  The sympathetic nervous system triggers;

  • The feeling of fear.

  • The pupils to dilate.

  • An increase in heart rate necessary to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the brain and the muscles to prepare for the stressful event.

  • The widening of the airways in the lungs to allow a more oxygen rich air supply into the blood and the rest of the body.

  • An increase in glucose to provide more energy to the muscles.

  • Digestion slows down to help conserve the body's energy.

  • Inhibits salivation and urination.

  • Sweating to help cool the body down.

All of this is meant to help you when there is real danger.

How you react to these symptoms when there is no real danger determines whether you have a panic attack or not.

Sympathetic Nervous System

 
Control Issues
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Do you hate feeling out of control or do you like it, such as when riding a roller coaster?  Control can be both a feeling and a behavior.  Control is also a reflexive action that aids in our survival.  Take for example losing control and slipping on ice.  Your reflexive reaction will be to get control fast before you fall.  Just knowing that you will be walking on ice will motivate you to be more in control and walk carefully.  It is natural for us to try and regain control when we feel out of control.  

 

Panic attacks cause people to feel out of control.  Remember that when the sympathetic nervous system (Fight or Flight) kicks in, it is fast, automatic, and is activated mostly without our conscious control.  This is why you feel out of control and fear losing control during a panic attack.  Most people attempt to gain more control or maintain control when panicking.  If you are driving when a panic attack happens, you may grip the steering wheel tighter.  You become over-controlled in response to panic and your fear of losing control.  Unfortunately, this reinforces the false perception that there is danger.  This can increase the level of anxiety and further fuel a panic attack.  So you are not really maintaining control, you are maintaining fear and anxiety. 

When it comes to anxiety and panic, the more controlling you are, the more out of control you will feel.  By increasing your level of control when anxious, you send the message that you are in danger, and then your sympathetic nervous system works even harder.  

For More Information about Panic Attacks and Anxiety:

Check out The Fear Blog for more articles about how to stop panic attacks, cope with anxiety, and overcome fear.

Attacking Panic: The Power To Be Calm. Copyright © 2017 Russell A. Hunter, Psy.D. All rights reserved. Attacking Panic is available in paperback and Kindle edition at Amazon and in paperback at Barnes & Noble and other online retailers.

How to Stop A Panic Attack Quickly.

Russell A. Hunter, Psy.D. Psychology Today Profile

National Register of Health Service Psychologists

8644 Sudley Road, Suite 315 Manassas VA 20110

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