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4 Common Panic Attack Triggers

If you are a person who deals with anxiety on a daily basis, it can be hard to identify your panic attack triggers.

I think every human being experiences panic attacks at some point in their life, and I, being a person prone to having anxiety, can say that panic attacks have been quite tumultuous at various times and seasons in my life. 

There are hundreds of thousands of different scenarios or circumstances that might trigger a panic attack. If you’re a person who suffers from anxiety on a daily basis, it can sometimes be difficult for you to identify the cause of your panic attack.

It can be very difficult

I have narrowed it down to some of the most common panic attack triggers that a person might experience with a little bit of my own personal experience with each trigger.

1. Stress 

Stress is number one on this list for several reasons. Most panic attacks people experience are rooted in some form of stress, whether it’s emotional, physiological, or even spiritual in nature. 

Stress can be caused by quite a wide array of things, making it something hard to avoid at certain times or seasons in a person’s life. 

In one of the most high-stress situations a person might face, something dramatic might trigger a person’s fight/flight/freeze response, which is probably one of the most “high-stress” types of situations that a person might experience in the course of their lifetime. 

For example, if you were camping in the mountains, and all of a sudden a bear or a moose charged at you, your body’s natural fight/flight/freeze reflexes are going to kick into gear without even having to think about it. 

Your heart rate and blood pressure would speed up as your body automatically prepared for the life-threatening situation.

Many of the same symptoms that would occur while being attacked are the same as when a person is having a panic attack. The mystery is why people still have panic attacks even though there is no real present threat of danger. 

Panic Attack Symptoms

Here are some of the more types of symptoms a person might experience while having a panic attack. Here is a list of common symptoms from mayoclinic.org.

  • Sense of impending doom or danger
  • Fear of loss of control or death
  • Rapid, pounding heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
  • Chills
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
  • Numbness or tingling sensation
  • A feeling of unreality or detachment

2. Preexisting Health Conditions

The next trigger that a person might experience that could lead to a panic attack is some form of health condition, whether it’s new or something a person has been dealing with their whole life.

Being diagnosed with a health condition can be quite the curveball, especially if it’s something that could potentially put a person’s life at risk. 

I personally have struggled with alcoholism or addiction since I was about 19 years old. 

Although I am sober today by God’s grace, I can say for a long period of time that I was basically always panic-attack prone just from being in active addiction and all of the chaos and stress that comes along with managing that lifestyle.

It wears you down more and more every day, and then when life throws something hard at you, you just fall apart.

It’s amazing how much easier it is just coping with daily stress from day to day just from being sober alone and staying healthy and active. Exercise and proper nutrition are some of the best ways to reduce the chance of having a panic attack.

Panic Attack Triggers Get Worse When You Have Underlying Anxiety

Having a panic attack disorder or anxiety disorder is obviously going to make a person have more panic attacks than other people who don’t have this type of mood disorder. 

Here are two real examples of panic attacks, of what a person who deals with a panic attack disorder goes through on a day-to-day basis from www.nimh.nih.gov.

“One day, without any warning or reason, a feeling of terrible anxiety came crashing down on me. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air, no matter how hard I breathed. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I thought I might die. I was sweating and felt dizzy. I felt like I had no control over these feelings and like I was drowning and couldn’t think straight.

“After what seemed like an eternity, my breathing slowed, and I eventually let go of the fear and my racing thoughts, but I was totally drained and exhausted. These attacks started to occur every couple of weeks, and I thought I was losing my mind. My friend saw how I was struggling and told me to call my doctor for help.”

Not something fun for anyone to go through. I can relate to both descriptions personally, and my heart goes out to anyone who comes up against these sorts of intense emotional and physiological hurdles on a regular basis, or at all.

3. Certain medications

There are some medications where the side effects act as a panic attack trigger, especially meds that are treating certain mood disorders.

So many other types of medications can cause side effects that increase a person’s daily stress. More stress makes it more likely to have a panic attack. 

Weight loss medications can make a person more prone to panic attacks. Any sort of stimulant, from caffeine to sugar to even more serious stuff like cocaine or amphetamines, all of these things have side effects similar to that of a panic attack.

Other medications that can cause panic attacks include:

  • birth control medications
  • cold and flu medications like dextromethorphan
  • Sudafed
  • antipsychotic medications

If you are taking medications and are experiencing any sort of unwanted side effects, always check in with your doctor and let them know what’s going on.

4. Substance Abuse Can Be a Huge Panic Attack Trigger

Another major panic attack trigger is substance abuse.

Like I said earlier, substance abuse can make a person experience a lot more panic attacks than someone who isn’t addicted to a drug.

Drugs like cocaine, marijuana, benzos, and heroin can cause a person to go into psychosis, which includes strong symptoms of anxiety no different and sometimes worse than your average panic attack. 

Luckily there are a ton of different options out there I’m sure in a town near you that can help a person treat living with co-occurring conditions such as alcoholism and panic attack disorder. 

Criteria for Diagnosis of Panic Disorder

Not everyone who has panic attacks has panic disorder. For a diagnosis of panic disorder, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, lists these important points:

The number one rule is that you have frequent, unexpected panic attacks.

At least one of your attacks has been followed by one month or more of ongoing worry about having another attack; continued and perpetual fear of the consequences of an attack, such as losing control, having a heart attack, or “going crazy.”

Significant changes in your behavior, such as avoiding situations that you think may trigger a panic attack or going from happy to full-on crisis mode over something that shouldn’t cause such a life or death response.

Lastly, an important criteria point for panic disorder is that our panic attacks aren’t caused by drugs or other substance use, a medical condition, or another mental health condition, such as a social phobia or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

What Are Your Panic Attack Triggers?

Everyone is different, and what triggers your panic attacks are probably unique to you in some way.

I want to hear your story. Tell me your panic attack triggers in the comments.

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Ryan Henderson

Ryan Henderson is a magician and mental health advocate.

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