What Causes a Panic Attack?

You’re going about your day, maybe even feeling pretty good about things, when all of a sudden, this sense of impending doom comes over you. Your heart is beating fast, your body is shaking, and you feel like you can’t breathe. This sudden onset of impending doom is called a panic attack.

This article will cover the symptoms of a panic attack, what causes them, and what you can to to mitigate their effect on you.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

No one likes getting blindsided by a panic attack. They are incredibly unpleasant to experience, and because of their severity, even after one ends, you can feel off for the rest of the day. Their sudden onset makes them difficult to prevent and difficult to recover from.

An estimated 1 in 75 people experience panic disorder. Despite the prevalence of panic attacks, they aren’t all alike. However, if you’re experiencing a panic attack, you’ll likely experience any combination of the following symptoms.

  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Dizziness
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of having a panic attack at any moment
  • Feeling like the world around you isn’t real
  • Feeling of impending doom
  • Headache
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea
  • Numbness
  • Racing heart beat
  • Shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomach ache
  • Sweating

The severity of panic attack symptoms often does not match the circumstances in which a panic attack happens. You don’t have to be experiencing a traumatic event in order to experience a panic attack. In fact, the reason that most panic attacks are so debilitating is because they happen in relatively safe circumstances.

What Causes a Panic Attack?

What Causes a Panic Attack 2

What causes the symptoms of a panic attack? The rapid, shallow breathing paired with the racing heart happen because your brain has identified a stimulus as a source of potential danger.

This reaction happens because your body is going into fight or flight mode. For whatever reason, your brain has come to the conclusion that you are in danger and need to be ready to fight the source of danger or run from it.

Doctors still aren’t entirely sure what causes panic attacks. Because they come on so suddenly, in many different situations, it’s difficult to identify panic-causing factors. However, there are some educated guesses as to what causes panic attacks and panic disorder.

Most of the time, panic attacks do seem to come out of nowhere. Those who experience them are left wondering why they reacted so intensely. Because it is so difficult to figure out what causes a panic attack, many people live in fear of having another one at any given time.

Anyone can have a panic attack. However, most of the time, panic attacks happen to people who have panic disorder or agoraphobia.

These include:

  • Change in brain function
  • Genetics
  • Major life events like a death or divorce

Once you’ve had a panic attack, you’re much more likely to experience one. Unconsciously, your brain has made a connection between the environment and circumstances you were in when you had a panic attack. This can lead to being afraid of going out in public, lest you have another panic attack.

If your brain can spot a pattern in what is happening, you can have a panic attack in similar situations. This can be something as simple as wearing the same shirt, or as complicated as being with a specific person in a specific environment.

Panic disorder is characterized by having multiple panic attacks. If you just have one or two panic attacks over a long period of time, you likely don’t have panic disorder. However, if you are prone to having frequent panic attacks, then you might have panic disorder. If you are worried about your diagnosis, it is best to see a mental health professional as soon as possible.

Most people who suffer from Panic Disorder tend to lead stressful lives. These people don’t have healthy ways of reacting to or coping with stress, and don’t know how to manage the everyday stressors that everyone has to cope with.

What to do if You Are Having a Panic Attack

If you suffer from panic attacks, don’t lose hope. There are a number of things you can do both in the moment and as preemptively to decrease their severity.

What Causes a Panic Attack 3

While it is difficult to identify exactly what is causing them, having less stress in your life in a general sense and learning stress management techniques will help you to manage the debilitating symptoms that come with panic attacks.

Here are a few things you can do to lead a calmer life.

  • Practice Deep Breathing Regularly and During Panic Attacks

Deep breathing exercises have been proven in dozens of studies to be an effective way of decreasing stress. It works by stimulating the parts of your brain that control rest and relaxation. By breathing deeply, you are sending the signal to your brain that it’s safe to take it easy, and that you aren’t in any danger.

Getting into a habit of deep breathing will make it easier to breathe deeply when you are in a state of panic. If you aren’t used to certain breathing techniques, trying to learn them in a state of panic is likely to only cause more stress and anxiety. Instead, practice deep breathing for a few minutes a day. This will decrease your overall stressors, and will also likely reduce the amount of panic attacks you experience.

  • Set Up a Panic Attack Routine

Trying to figure out how to calm down from a panic attack while you are having one is not the best way to reduce stress. You aren’t thinking clearly when you are panicking, so you aren’t in a good position to identify what helps.

Instead, come up with steps you can take when you are having a panic attack. Write them down in a place that’s easy to see, like on your fridge or as your phone background.

Here are some useful steps you can include in your routine.

  • Find a safe space
  • Pick a breathing exercise
  • Count to ten
  • Use a comfort object
  • Pull up a guided meditation
  • Do some yoga
  • Go on a walk

You don’t have to do anything specific. Whatever works best to help you calm down in a state of panic is what you should do in order to calm down.

Focus on The Present Moment

Many times we get anxious and start to panic when we are thinking about the future, or worrying about what happened in the past. This can lead to a panic attack if you feel like you aren’t in control.

Focusing on the present has been proven to reduce stress and quickly bring a state of calm to your mind.

This is one of the easiest things you can do to come down from a state of panic. One useful technique in being focused on the present is doing what’s called the 54321 technique.

Here’s how it works:

5 – List out loud five things you see. This could be a picture on your wall, the pattern on the ceiling, or a freckle on your skin.

4 – List out loud four things you can touch and touch them as you are doing so. This could be the carpet, your chair, or the ground outside.

3 – List out loud three things you can hear in your environment. This could be the air conditioning, the hum of your computer, or cars outside.

2 – List out loud two things you can smell. This one can be hard for people if you are inside, but if you focus and close your eyes as you smell, it’s easier to pick up on something. This could be a coworker’s perfume, the plastic of your phone, or someone cooking something in the microwave.

1 – List out loud one thing you can taste. What does the inside of your mouth taste like? Did you recently have gum or a drink?

This technique works best if you use detail to describe what you are observing. After going through this exercise, you’re likely to feel calmer and more focused on the present moment.

A Spire stone and Spire tags were created to help you navigate panic attacks. The way you breathe says a lot about what is going on in your body. Wearing our products is a great way to monitor your state of panic. The stone observes when your breath is faster than normal, and notifies you when your breathing is too tense. The app comes with short meditations to help you calm down.

Check out the science behind Spire today!

About the Author

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Spire is dedicated to helping you live a happier, healthier lifestyle with an easy-to-use device for mindful breathing techniques. Learn more about the benefits of breath-tracking at Spire.io.

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