Panic & anxiety attacks might seem to happen “for no apparent reason” – but hidden ‘behind the scenes’ there’s a common underlying cause.
Some people experience them more strongly than others, and they typically include symptoms like:
- A feeling of panic or anxiety, sometimes doom or fear of death
- Rapid heartbeat
- Chest pains
- Lightheadedness and shortness of breath / a sense you can’t breathe enough air (caused by hyperventilation)
Panic and anxiety attacks occur due to a type of issue involving our unconscious mind1, which you could think about as an “unconscious malfunction”.
Basically the way anxiety and panic attacks develop is as follows (panic and anxiety attacks function in a very similar way). Notice how over time the attacks seem to begin occurring “for no apparent reason”:
- An extended build-up of unhealthy stress generally triggers someone’s first panic or anxiety attack. The brain notices the build up of unhealthy stress, and interprets the situation as an emergency. It then creates an emotion of strong anxiety or panic in an attempt to help you: To motivate you to fight, freeze or run away from a threat.
- When that first anxiety attack happens, our brain interprets the situation as an emergency. It takes a ‘snapshot’ of the environment around us (like taking a photo, except it uses all five of our senses – and it’s ‘low resolution’).
It saves that snapshot as an “emergency situation” to protect us from in future – it’s just trying to keep you safe.
- The brain is now constantly looking out for that “emergency situation” again in future. It’s looking out for any situation that matches the snapshot from before ‘closely enough’ – it doesn’t want to risk a delayed response in a possible emergency, so it only needs a ‘similar enough’ match. Some time later we might be somewhere that reminds the brain of that ‘snapshot’ it took before, even vaguely – and when it sees that similarity, thinks it’s an emergency again. To try to motivate you to fight, run, or freeze, it creates that panic or anxiety feeling once again, which is a second anxiety attack.
When this second attack occurs it may take a second snapshot, which can become *another* “emergency situation”. Now, anything that it picks up in the new snapshot which wasn’t in the previous snapshot becomes additional triggers for another anxiety/panic attack.
- Later there’s a third attack and maybe a third snapshot, and on and on. As this process continues the number of situations the brain considers “emergencies” can increase, and the anxiety/panic attacks can become generalised.
In this way the variety of situations that can trigger the anxiety or panic attacks can become ‘generalised’ over time, until there is no longer an obvious trigger for the attacks. Sometimes internal bodily sensations that occur during an attack (like noticing our heartbeat) become triggers for the attacks in the process.
(In rarer cases where anxiety or panic attacks become extremely generalised, the result can be a form of agoraphobia, developing to a point where someone doesn’t want to leave the house for fear of more anxiety and panic attacks.)
Many treatments seek to help a person cope with anxiety and panic attacks while they’re happening. But in addition, I highly recommend exploring brief therapies that seek to reprogram the brain’s behaviour, to reduce and stop the attacks occurring in the first place. Get my free download Overcome Anxiety & Stress by Changing How Your Mind Works to learn about this kind of therapy (and experience it for yourself).