What Causes Panic Attacks

What Causes Panic Attacks?

by Lindsay Cote

If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you know that it can be a terrifying experience. While symptoms vary, they can include:

  • Pounding or racing heart
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal pain
  • Chills or heat
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Weakness, faintness or dizziness
  • Feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself

Particularly if the individual has never had a panic attack, he or she may fear that they are going crazy or may die. Typically, a person’s first panic attack occurs in the context of significant stress or anxiety; however, attacks can also feel as though they come out of the blue, meaning that some people then live in constant fear that they may have another one (this is called Panic Disorder).

Because a first panic attack can be traumatic, subsequent panic attacks often occur in situations like the first one (e.g., if you had your first one while out to eat at a restaurant, you may begin to fear restaurants, making subsequent attacks more likely to occur in that setting) or in situations in which the individual fears that she may not be able to escape to safety if a panic attack were to occur.

Subsequent panic attacks then tend to happen when a person catastrophically misinterprets bodily cues. For example, a person might walk up a long flight of stairs and feel their heart and breathing rates increase. The person then thinks, “Oh, no, what if I have a panic attack?” This causes anxiety and further worsening of the physical symptoms. The upward spiral of anxiety can happen very quickly and result in a panic attack.

The key to stopping this process is to recognise the symptoms for what they truly are and to redirect attention away from the self and toward the environment. If this sounds tricky, it is because it is, and you may need assistance from a mental health professional to find strategies that work for you.