Common Causes of Anxiety and Panic Attacks and What to Do About Them
When a panic and anxiety attack settles in for the first time, there may seem to be no obvious reason behind it. It appears to come out of nowhere, out of the blue and without warning. At that very moment, you have no idea where it had come from. But the fact of the matter is that there are distinct causes of anxiety and panic attacks. More often than not, there is a connection between your life and the panic attacks that you are experiencing.
You may miss what that connection is entirely, however the connection is there. One of the reasons for missing out on the root causes of a panic attack is that the sufferer is normally looking in the wrong places. The analysis is immediate and commonly very short sighted. Usually when we experience very strong sensations we look around us to see what is causing them at that moment.
We ask ourselves:
Is something threatening me?
Am I in danger?
Did I manage to contract a dangerous illness?
Did I eat something that had triggered these sensations?
Was I poisoned?
Initially, sufferers of panic and anxiety rarely look further back into their lives to explain the causes of social anxiety disorder or any other kind of anxiety disorders. However, the real cause of anxiety and panic attacks go much further than the heat of the moment. The root cause of attacks and sensations like this can actually be traced back to months, even years before the first incident. Usually, the first attack is triggered by a minute experience that causes the anxiety to come bubbling back to the surface in the form of an panic attack.
But what are the possible causes of anxiety and panic attacks? And how can they be dealt with? Read More
Finding the Connection Between Your Life and Your Panic Attacks
Sufferers should not look for a connection in terms of what has been happening in the last hour; although that is almost always the case. When tracking down the connection between your life and your panic attacks, you should go farther back than that day and even that week. Your could look at the events of previous one to nine months. If nothing comes up, it might require you to go farther back to maybe a full year or longer.
As mentioned earlier, most people believe that the triggers for their panic attacks are right under their nose, but it’s important to be able to step back and see the bigger picture. Anxiety and panic attacks are very serious disruptions to both your mind and body, and normally the root cause of these attacks are just as grave.
Therapists and doctors normally ask their patients if there was anything important going on in their life around the time they had a panic attack, and the usual answer is “no”. But that is only a response to the moment. They immediately get a flashback to the very second they had an attack.
They were sitting at dinner, or they were among friends, they were sometimes just sitting on their bed alone in their room. However, the question is not directed at a particular instance in and around the initial panic attack, it is a question directed at anytime between a month to a whole year beforehand.
It’s common for patients to suddenly make a possible connection as their doctor begins to probe deeper in their lives. Suddenly, patterns and possible root causes begin to emerge as the patient begins to describe the months leading up to the attack.
Sometimes, patients report all kinds of events, both disheartening and disruptive – parents dying, a marriage breaking up, a loss of a job, or a traumatizing injury or operation. However, it’s also very common that these topics aren’t broached until maybe the second or even third session; sometimes much later, depending on the person and issues at hand.
It’s very common for sufferers of social anxiety disorders to initially believe that they couldn’t possible suffer from anxiety. How could it happen to them? What makes them different? What makes them more susceptible to anxiety than their neighbor, their friends, or even their relatives?
Although most people don’t even know who among their circle of friends and family suffer from anxiety disorders, it’s far more common than people think.
But the first step to finding what causes panic attacks is being able to step back out from yourself and examine your life as a whole. That said, a very common cause for anxiety and panic attacks is stress.
Stress and Trauma: Common Causes of Anxiety and Panic Attacks
There are many medical studies showing that in the months leading up to the first unexpected panic attack, the sufferer had been going through a period of stress and trauma. If it is not just one thing, it is a collection of incidents that simply piled on top of one another. Here are just a handful of common stresses that can lead to anxiety:
- Death, disability or illness of a partner, close relative or friend.
- Marital problems such as heated arguments or prolonged separation, domestic abuse, financial concerns, extramarital affairs and even divorce proceedings.
- Familial concerns such as aging family members (e.g Mother or Father) requiring constant care and attention, parental pressure in career, relationships and life.
- Dramatic change such as moving away from home, starting a new job or school, or simply moving to a whole new area (this is further aggravated if the quality of the change is for the worse rather than for the better).
- Child related concerns such as having a baby, miscarriages, stillbirths and abortions, health complications such as illness, injury or accidents, children leaving home, or financial security.
- Personal health complications such as diagnosis of terminal diseases (e.g cancer), an impending operation, sudden disability or even menopause.
- Natural disasters or accidents such as a traumatic car crash or various near death experiences.
- Career and work troubles such as being burned out with deadlines and an ever growing work load. This is further aggravated by lack of career advancement and pay increase; or a general dissatisfaction with the line of work.
- Financial problems such as mortgage concerns, debt issues, mounting bills, bank foreclosure or any other number of mounting bills.
- Drug addiction to either illegal or even legal substances. Studies have shown that more than a tenth of all initial panic attacks are triggered by substance abuse of both over the counter and under the counter drugs.
Almost any of the above stresses and traumatic experiences may be enough to set the scene for panic. Often one problem on its own is not enough, but two or three problems can pile up to create an overload in your system that can cause a panic attack.
This is usually the case with stressful and traumatic events. It triggers a domino effect of consequences that can easily aggravate the stress and trauma of a single event.
Take for example a death in the family. The closer you are to that particular family member, the bigger the impact to your life. But not only must you deal with your own grief, but with those grieving around you.
On a practical level, you have to be able to deal with the funeral and viewing arrangements, as well as the various social niceties that accompany a death in the family. If you are very close to the deceased, it may fall on your shoulders to settle their estate, break the news to other close friends and family, and cope with the fall out of having to deal with a loss of such a big figure in your life. Those are direct consequences of a person’s death, which amounts to more than a single source of anxiety.
People often make the mistake of assuming that one action breeds only one consequence. But as cited in the scenario above, that isn’t the case at all. A stressful and traumatic event can easily lead to a chain reaction of other equally if not more stressful and traumatic events.
But if panic attacks can strike seemingly out of nowhere, why do they strike when they do?
Time and Place: When Does a Panic and Anxiety Attack Strike
After finding the root cause of anxiety, the next common reaction is why you had experienced a panic attack when you did. Why then? Why not a day earlier? Or a day later? And when will it strike next?
As mentioned in countless articles on both this blog and others, panic and anxiety attacks are hard to predict. Unlike our bodies, our minds are not as easily read by a medical imaging system. There is no stethoscope we can press against our skulls to hear if our thoughts are in tact and there is no definitive test we can take to predict if we are susceptible to an anxiety attack, or how often.
Although we cannot definitively pinpoint when and where the next panic attack will strike, there are various conditions where sufferers of panic disorders are most susceptible
Lowered Body Resistance
One particular study carried out among panic sufferers pointed out that more than three fifths of the participants suffered a panic attack during a time when their immune system or body resistance was lowered. This includes prolonged bouts of physical exhaustion, menopausal flushing or flares, dysmenorrhea, child birth infections or bodily inflammations or even sicknesses such as colds or flu’s. Although these ailments do not trigger the panic attacks per say, they can easily set the stage for one.
Mind Altering and Influencing Substances
As mentioned in the earlier section, drugs can be a major source of stress and trauma. However, they can also be a platform that triggers a panic attack. Although a good number of sufferers of anxiety look to alcohol to put their mind at ease, alcohol can have the complete opposite effect on people.
Drugs and alcohol (especially when mixed with one another in large doses) can easily trigger palpitations, uncontrollable sweating, distress, panic and paranoia; all symptoms of a full-on panic attack. The lack of mental control over yourself can be both a blessing and a bane depending on what direction the wind blows at the time. Not having the ability to keep your thoughts in check can drive you into a drug-induced anxiety attack, while it can also put you straight to sleep.
Changes in Life, Disposition and Well-Being
Drastic changes can also easily trigger a panic attack even if it has nothing to do with the root cause. Even if the root cause is an ongoing divorce, the spouse can just as easily have an anxiety attack five minutes before giving a career defining presentation to her boss.
Panic attacks rooted on a particular instance need not be triggered by an event related to that instance. One documented patient recalled having a serious panic attack upon realizing that the orange juice she had been buying for ten years suddenly ran out. It was later identified that she was being domestically abused at home, and no connection was made between her husband and the orange juice, but apparently the disruption of her routine was an immediate cause of anxiety.
It’s no surprise that sufferers of social anxiety prefer familiar faces and places. They like staying home or usual hang-outs. They like doing the same things with the same people. They aren’t usually very adventurous or immediately forthcoming; because as soon as that familiarity is gone, anxiety can quickly set in.
Last Straw Syndrome
Apart from these supposed “background” causes for anxiety and panic attacks, there is often a trigger that “breaks the camel’s back” so to speak. If a student had spent the last five months of his life diligently studying for a series of life defining board exams, discovering that he had failed can easily send him to a panic attack.
Another example is a man who had given up everything for his family’s comfort and well-being can find himself on the receiving end of an anxiety attack if he discovers that he was gravely misled by his significant other regarding important family or relationship truths.
However, these triggers are usually easily identifiable since there are clear “cause and effect” patterns between the trigger and the following panic attack. The last straw usually leads to a sudden burst of anxiety and panic since the trigger is so clearly related to the root cause.
The Changing Cause of Anxiety: Anxiety Itself
Although the root cause for anxiety and panic may have been identified in a patient, the sufferer may be just as confused as to why a panic attack should continue for as long as it does. Normally, people tend to believe the identification of the cause of panic and anxiety should lessen the panic attacks that come with it. Unfortunately, that is not the case most of the time.
This is because panic is something that changes. Not only does it change the people it affects, but the causes of the panic begin to change as well. As a patient suffers more panic attacks, he no longer fears the triggers or the causes of the panic attacks, he or she begins to fear the panic attacks themselves.
Anxiety is no longer caused by an external force fueled by a past event. Instead, anxiety is caused, aggravated and fueled by anxiety itself. Fear of more panic attacks, for example, gives patients an inner focus in which they are hypersensitive to the first sensations of a panic attack.
The fear of these sensations sets up a vicious cycle: fear produces more sensations, which produces more fear, which produces more sensations, and fear, and sensations, and fear and so on and so forth. In turn, the very nature of the anxiety’s cause has changed. It has evolved to something completely new, and into something just as serious.
The reason sufferers fear having another panic attack is that they dread the possible consequences of another attack. They fear the damage they think it might do to them – maybe causing a heart attack, fainting or even madness. Instead of avoiding (or confronting) the root cause of their anxiety, the sufferer simply avoids everything and anything that can trigger these unpleasant consequences.
The sufferer begins to avoid places, situations, feelings, plans, actions and even thoughts that may lead to the remote possible of an anxiety attack. They retreat to sleeping aids, pills and drugs to help sedate them. They exude so much mental energy to avoiding these possible triggers, by the time they realize that their lifestyle has changed completely it would have been too late. And unfortunately, this new person, shaped and influenced by anxiety, is simply a shell of their former self.
Finding the Cause and Treating Anxiety and Panic Attacks
As mentioned earlier in this article, finding the root cause of panic and anxiety attacks is not simple. It is not something that is blatantly obvious even long after the attack had subsided. And sometimes it’s simply too painful or traumatizing to bring up.
There is an invisible world of connections that panic sufferers are only vaguely aware of. They usually do not realize the first panic is caused by a stressful and traumatic incident that may have happened months before the initial attack. They may have found themselves rebounding from a sickness with a lowered immune system, and blamed this for the sudden onset of anxiety. They may be developing a drastic (yet not life altering) change in their life and attribute the anxiety to that.
When panic occurs, it’s common for sufferers to connect with background causes that are misleading (though still entirely plausible) like a nervous breakdown or even cancer. But it’s hard to distinguish a root cause from a trigger. And it’s only in healing the former that you can totally and completely heal the latter. It is important to be able to do that before anxiety evolves into the cause of anxiety itself. Once a sufferer begins to be afraid of the sensations they get in panic, fear of the sensations themselves can keep the panic reaction going for an indefinite number of years.
Unfortunately, nipping anxiety and panic in the bud like that is hardly ever possible, and hardly ever done. By the time a patient seeks professional help, it is normally too late to undo most of the damage anxiety has dealt to their life. Still, the sufferers cannot be blamed for this. The ability to confess to yourself that you have an anxiety disorder is already a tremendous undertaking. And seeking help with that is just as overwhelming.
However, that still does not belittle the fact that patients serious about treating anxiety and panic attacks should also be ready to not lose sight of the root cause of their condition. They should be ready to confront the root cause of their anxiety, while not allowing it to take control of their life. They should be able to work towards knowing the difference between being truly anxious, or simply being anxious of being anxious.
It is not an easy distinction to make, and it is definitely not done over a single session or over a single book or treatment. It is a process. And like a muscle that needs to be rehabilitated, it is also important to make it part of a routine that is constant and unwavering.
There are a host of different natural treatments and various medications that can help curb the effects of anxiety and panic attacks. However, these can prove to be simply short term solutions to a much larger problem. And a condition such as panic disorder doesn’t deserve to be treated with half-measures. Identifying and confronting the causes of anxiety and panic attacks is just as important with even longer term effects and benefits for your life.