Panic attacks (part 2)

July, 2014

What causes panic attacks?

Fear is our body’s natural response to anything we perceive as scary or threatening.  It’s all about scale though – fear can range from mild anxiety (which can be helpful when there is a goal, like doing well in an exam,) through to full-blown panic.

Fear is an unpleasant feeling because it is a warning, a bit like pain.  If you burn yourself on the oven, the pain warns you to move your hand away fast. Running footsteps behind you might scare you and prepare you to deal with danger.  Fear is very useful because it prepares your body for action.  This is called the “fight, flight or freeze” response.  So that when you feel fear, your body prepares to fight or flee from the thing it feels threatened by, or possibly to stay completely still hoping that the threat will pass you by.

When you are frightened you breathe more quickly so that you can get lots of oxygen to your muscles.  Your heart beats faster to pump the blood faster round your body.  Your digestive system closes down to allow your body to concentrate on the more immediate threat.  This is your body’s normal healthy reaction to threat.  It is your body’s alarm system.

The problem with panic attacks is that usually they occur when there is no obvious physical threat there at all.  Your body is reacting as though it was about to be attacked when in reality it is not.  In other words it is a false alarm.  It is a bit like the annoying car alarm that is set off by the wind.

The problem is that our body’s “alarm system” was designed for ancient times when humans had to cope with life or death situations in order to survive.  These days we face very different threats, mainly related to stress. Whilst a panic attack may be unpleasant, it is not dangerous.  Quite the opposite.  It is a system designed to protect us, not harm us.

Panic attacks can start for a number of reasons:-


Stressful times or events cause anxiety to go up, which may lead to the alarm system being triggered.  Workplace stress or being out of work, relationship problems, loss of a loved one, financial difficulties are some of the more common life stressors that may be at the root of high anxiety.

Health worries

Panic attacks often begin when a person becomes over-concerned about their health. Maybe someone has recently experienced the sudden death of someone they are close to.  They then become very worried about their own health, and look for signs that they may be developing the same illness.   They are often aware of medical ‘mistakes’ where serious illness has not been picked up, or treatment has not gone perfectly, and so become worried about oversights.  This leads to raised anxiety.  They then think their anxiety symptoms are evidence of illness, which results in more anxiety and a vicious circle develops, resulting in panic.

Physical reasons

Sometimes panic attacks occur when the body is under extra stress, for example, some viruses can cause dizziness; pregnancy or the menopause cause hormonal changes in the way our body works or large amounts of caffeine, or low blood sugar can also lead to feelings of faintness.

Difficult emotions

Panic attacks often begin when there are difficult feelings from the past or present that are being ‘swept under the carpet’.  Maybe you have relationship problems, or there’s something in your past you need to deal with?

Out of the blue

Sometimes we just don’t know why panic attacks begin.  Some people are just more prone to feeling high anxiety and are more easily tipped over the edge. Some even have their first panic attack when they are asleep!  It may just be that certain people, in certain circumstances respond like the over-sensitive car alarm. In some ways it is less important to know what causes panic attacks to begin and more important to know what keeps them going.  More on this next month…