Have you ever experienced a panic attack and felt like it came out of nowhere? You're not alone. Panic attacks can seem to come out of the blue, but they're usually triggered by a combination of physical, emotional, and environmental factors. Understanding what triggers your panic attacks can help you to manage them better.
One major type of trigger for panic attacks is our physical state. Our bodies are more likely to go into a state of fight or flight when we are physically primed to do so. A few common examples of physical triggers include stimulants like caffeine, sleep deprivation, hangovers, and underlying health issues.
Caffeine is a well-known panic trigger. In fact, it's often used to elicit panic attacks in anxiety research. Caffeine causes us to produce more cortisol and adrenaline, increasing our heart rate and mental alertness. For some people, this can be overstimulating and make anxiety and panic more likely. When we don't get enough sleep, our ability to control our emotional reactions is diminished. This reduced ability to override and make sense of our emotional responses makes us more susceptible to panic attacks. Alcohol can also cause a withdrawal effect, which reduces the function of GABA, our key calming brain chemical. This can lead to increased tension and anxiety, making panic attacks more likely. Finally, underlying health imbalances, such as thyroid conditions, hormonal imbalances, and inflammation can prime us for physical and mental overstimulation, increasing the likelihood of panic attacks.
Mental and Emotional Factors
Our mental and emotional state is another type of trigger for panic attacks. When we experience a lot of stress over a short period of time, this can lower the threshold for anxiety and panic attacks to occur. This is especially true when we are unaware of the stress that we are under. For example, major life changes or a number of smaller changes happening all at once can cause stress and trigger anxiety. Finally, when we suppress our feelings, this can lead to a buildup of unexpressed emotion and anxiety. When we don't feel safe to express how we feel and these suppressed feelings re-emerge, this can trigger panic.
Environmental and Social Cues
A smell, taste, sound, sensation, or place can trigger anxiety if it is associated with a past experience that caused distress. Likewise, physical features of a person or certain social situations can heighten our anxiety if they remind us of a previous experience that made us feel unsafe. These triggers often happen at the unconscious level, and becoming aware of them can help us make sense of our reactions and feel more in control during a panic attack.
Not being aware of what triggers a panic attack can make it more likely that we will tell ourselves something terrible is happening. This, in turn, can feed fear and make our panic worse. Therefore, recognizing and understanding our triggers can go a long way in preventing and managing panic attack symptoms. I highly recommend going through each trigger and considering how they may apply to you. You can do this through self-reflection or with the help of a professional. Once you have identified your personal triggering factors, the next step is to look at what you can do about them.