Once you learn the common causes of panic attacks and anxiety, they won’t be scary anymore, and it will be easier to deal with them
If you currently suffer from panic, I encourage you to read this article so you can learn all the basics: what panic really is, why it happens, and how you can cure it without using any medications.
In short, CBT — Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — is the best way to heal panic and anxiety, and it’s far more effective than antidepressants. By changing your thought patterns, and gradually exposing yourself to discomfort, the attacks will almost always disappear.
While almost all panic attacks are generated in your mind, I decided to divide the thirty triggers in three different categories — psychological, physical, and related to your lifestyle.
The triggers listed here are quite common, and I have experienced many of them myself. Hopefully, after reading this article you will realize that you are not alone, and that in some situations it’s normal to feel anxious.
Once you identify what your triggers are, your goal will be to either avoid them (especially if they include toxic environments, poor lifestyle choices, or poor health) or change your thoughts linked to them.
For example, if you suddenly change your posture, you may feel a little dizzy, and notice changes in your breathing. If you interpret those changes as dangerous, or as the onset of a panic attack, then your anxiety will increase, and so will your symptoms. This is the vicious cycle of panic (you can find the full explanation here).
On the other hand, if you realize it’s normal to notice those physical changes, you won’t have any negative thoughts, and won’t feel any anxiety. Sometimes it really is that simple to heal panic attacks.
Without further ado, let’s have a look at some common psychological triggers.
Psychological causes of panic attacks
1. Fear of having an attack
Naturally, when you’re afraid of something, you’ll be more likely to attract it. One of the most common causes of panic attacks is actually the fear of experiencing one. The more you think about it, the more you will worry, and the more anxious you will be in general.
So whenever you start worrying for no reason, I encourage you to break your thought pattern by focusing on something else — your surroundings, what you see, what you hear, or even a text message on your phone.
2. Catastrophic thinking
Essentially, this means having extremely negative thoughts about a particular situation: no matter what happens to you, you always expect the worst outcome, regardless of how unlikely it is.
For example, you may have a mild headache, but think you are developing some horrible disease; something goes wrong at work and you know you’re going to lose your job; you’re about to have a conversation with a relative and you are certain they will react aggressively.
If that’s the case, ask yourself how likely that outcome is (chances are, it will be almost impossible) and stop worrying about the “what ifs”. Be as pragmatic as possible.
This is how I had my first panic attack: I suddenly woke up after a bad dream, and felt very anxious. Then, because I kept thinking about my anxiety, the feelings gradually got worse and worse until my heart started racing.
Some nightmares can be terrifying, so it’s normal to feel a little scared and confused when you wake up. If you notice your heart is beating faster than usual, or you’re sweating, do not panic (literally), tell yourself you’re fine, and focus on something else.
4. Disturbing images
Personally, I believe nobody should ever read or watch anything disturbing — whether that’s horror movies, scary pictures, or news about murders and crime.
Your subconscious mind isn’t able to distinguish between imagination and reality, and the more negative stuff you’ll see, the more your mind will absorb it. If you suffer from panic and anxiety, that’s one more reason to stay away from disturbing stuff.
5. Feeling uncomfortable
People watching you, a crowded place, a job interview, being under pressure: any situation that makes you feel embarrassed or uncomfortable may trigger a panic attack.
Now, it’s important you realize that it’s not the situation itself, but the way you react to the situation that triggers the attack. You feel overwhelmed, and you have anxious thoughts, but it’s an overreaction — otherwise everyone else would react the same way.
6. Having an argument
During a heated argument, our emotions and feelings can change rapidly. But we are all different: some of us may start crying, some may shout in anger, and some may become very anxious. When that happens, you could think that you are losing control and you’re going to have an attack.
Once again, if you tell yourself it’s normal to feel different when you’re angry or upset, you won’t overreact to those feelings.
7. Social phobia
A possible cause of panic attacks is social phobia, which is related to the fifth trigger (being uncomfortable and/or embarrassed). This is a great example of how your thoughts, rather than your environment, can cause extreme anxiety.
When someone suffers from social phobia, the issue isn’t people around them, but what goes on in their mind. They think they will be judged, made fun of, or verbally abused, even though that’s extremely rare (and even if it did happen, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, right?).
8. Feeling trapped
This could happen whenever you’re in an elevator, on the train, or on a plane. A small space can make anyone feel claustrophobic, and if you suffer from panic, it could be overwhelming.
If that happens, remind yourself that what you feel is uncomfortable but not dangerous at all; breathe slowly, and direct your focus somewhere else. If there’s people around you, tell yourself that if they they are calm, you should be as well.
9. Being far away from home
Typically, someone who suffers from panic wants to feel as safe as possible. So if they’re close to their home they feel fine, but what if they’re two hours away, and experience an attack? What if they lose control? Will they go to the hospital? Will they die?
These are irrational thoughts simply because it’s impossible to die, lose control or become insane during an attack. Fainting, although possible, is extremely rare.
As a matter of fact, the more you avoid leaving the house for long periods of time, the more fear you will experience, and the more anxious you will become. Conversely, by gradually exposing yourself to discomfort, your fear will eventually disappear!
10. Being at work
This could be a combination of feeling trapped, being under pressure, and worrying about your colleagues’ thoughts. Some panic sufferers don’t want any of their friends to find out about their condition — let alone their employer.
Plus, some events at work could be particularly stressful, such as giving a presentation or working on a project with a tight deadline.
In the rare case you experience an attack at work, consider going to a bathroom, or outside. Remind yourself it will go away soon, and it won’t harm you in any way.
“What if it happens while I’m driving? Will I be able to concentrate? What if I hyperventilate, and faint? Will I be able to pull over?”
Typically, the anxiety begins before you even jump in your car, simply because of catastrophic thinking. So it’s very important to eliminate the negative self-talk and stop worrying before leaving the house.
Shortly after my first panic attack, I became convinced I had developed some weird disease: I had tension headaches, I would feel dizzy and anxious, my body was weaker, and sometimes I had hot flashes “for no reason”.
Obviously, at the time I didn’t know anything about panic, so I thought there was something wrong about my body. This is why it’s crucial to understand what panic is: if you don’t, you may think it’s some serious illness that you have no control over, which, in turn, would make you feel even more anxious.
13. Doing something new
Ultimately, because panic is an overreaction, anything could trigger an attack. So if you’re visiting a new place, or you’re doing something new, and you’re nervous, that could be a trigger.
However, as I mentioned earlier, it’s usually a good idea to expose yourself to situations that are a little uncomfortable, so your mind learns not to overreact, and the fear disappears.
14. Believing you have no control over your feelings
One of the objectives of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is giving you more power over your thoughts. And because your thoughts are directly linked to your body and your feelings, when you heal your mind your physical symptoms will decrease.
It may seem like panic happens to you, but in reality it doesn’t. Once you understand this, you will have more control.
Physical causes of panic attacks
15. Drinking alcohol
When you drink alcohol, especially a large amount, your physical and mental state changes, and you have less control over your thoughts. While most people will only feel relaxation after a glass of wine, somebody who suffers from anxiety may find that alcohol makes their anxiety worse.
This doesn’t automatically mean you should quit drinking if you’re anxious, but do be aware that it could be a trigger.
16. Doing drugs
Some people who struggle with mental health problems (such as low self-esteem, depression, and of course anxiety) resort to drugs as they think they can eliminate their symptoms temporarily. Of course, that is a terrible solution — get help immediately if you are using drugs, even if “recreationally”.
Believe it or not, many people experience their first attack right after smoking cannabis. Panic is bad enough, but when your mind is in an altered state, it can be the most terrifying thing you could ever experience.
17. Physical exercise
Working out does wonders for all mental health issues. Only, when you exercise:
- Your heart beats faster
- Your breathing changes
- Your body temperature may increase
- You may feel exhausted
That’s just our body’s natural reaction, however if someone interprets these feelings the wrong way, they may think it’s a panic attack — and experience one.
18. Abrupt posture changes
Much like physical exercise, a sudden change in posture can make you feel different — you may even feel a little dizzy.
The thing is, when you are terrified of having panic attacks, you become hypervigilant. In other words, you notice every single tiny change around you, and every change your body goes through. So something as simple as a posture change could trigger anxiety.
19. Poor diet
Basically, if you are eating the wrong foods, or you aren’t eating enough calories, your body becomes weaker, so it will be more likely to experience headaches or dizziness.
The solution to this is simple: eat enough, eat right, and make sure to drink a lot of water to avoid dehydration. When your mind isn’t in an optimal state, it’s vital to take care of your body.
Not eating enough calories is usually far worse than overeating, however after a big meal you may notice symptoms such as a faster heart rate, increased body temperature, headaches, nausea, or even anxiety, so it could be a trigger.
However this is just your body having a hard time digesting food, so once again, you need to tell yourself it’s perfectly normal, and not dangerous at all.
21. Breathing too quickly
When you’re anxious, you tend to breathe faster. If you hyperventilate, you may experience dizziness, confusion, or lightheadedness, and you may think you’re about to faint (remember: though it is possible to faint, it’s extremely rare!).
Not surprisingly, some meditation exercises involve long, deep breaths. When you breathe properly, your mind becomes clear, and your whole body relaxes. Whenever you notice you’re more anxious than usual, pay attention to your posture, and the way you breathe: chances are they’re not ideal.
22. Waking up suddenly
Whether it’s because of your alarm clock, a bad dream, or a loud noise, waking up abruptly can cause confusion and a fast heart rate: because you’re disoriented, you may think you are about to experience another panic attack (it happened to me one morning, and I was terrified; but like most attacks, it lasted less than five minutes).
Always remind yourself it will be over soon, and accept the fact it’s uncomfortable.
Causes of panic attacks related to lifestyle
23. Too much stress
As i wrote in this article: panic is usually your inner voice telling you to stop, and change your life. A lot of people experience their first attack when they are overworked, pushing themselves, and neglecting their physical and mental health.
If you are too stressed out, and so far you have ignored your inner voice, it’s time to change. A healthier lifestyle will make it easy to get rid of panic, and become a happier person overall.
24. Using stimulants
Coffee, energy drinks, nicotine, cacao, nootropics and many other supplements act as nervous system stimulants, and if you suffer from anxiety, I recommend you stop using them. There is no reason whatsoever to put further stress on your body and mind.
If you want high levels of energy, then you should focus on the basics (sleep, nutrition, and mental health), rather than drinking more coffee or taking pills. Stimulants can easily trigger anxiety, so find other ways to improve your productivity.
25. Poor sleep
We all know lack of sleep is terrible for your health, and this especially true for panic sufferers. Someone who is anxious tends to be more vulnerable and sensitive, so it’s essential that their body is as strong as possible.
You can check out my ten tips to sleep better naturally in this article.
26. Stressful events
As we’ve seen, a stressful lifestyle is one of the main reasons people develop panic disorders. But what I’m referring to here is single events — for example, a presentation at work, a heated argument, a project with a tight deadline, or a bad day in general.
When your body and mind accumulate a lot of stress, it dramatically increases the chances of having an attack. Interestingly, most of the time the attack won’t happen during those events, but after them. This is why some people experience anxiety as soon as they’re on holiday: they accumulated too much tension at work, but it shows up later.
27. Bullying or mobbing
Not much to explain here. Interacting with people who constantly sabotage you, put you down, or verbally abuse you isn’t going to help your mental health.
Everyone should do their best to cut these people off from their life, but for panic sufferers, this must be done as soon as possible. Not a single second of your time should be spent with evil manipulators.
28. Loss of a loved one or a breakup
Certain events in life can be very stressful, and it may take you a while to be able to move on. This could be the loss of a loved one, a relative being diagnosed with a serious illness, or a breakup after a long-term relationship.
When you are going through grief, you may interpret your feelings and emotions as dangerous, which may trigger panic attacks.
29. Financial problems
Money problems can definitely make you more anxious, especially if you’ve just lost your job (as an employee, or as a business owner). It’s perfectly normal to experience worry and anxiety when you have financial issues, so if you are struggling, get help.
Therapy doesn’t need to be expensive — some therapists will understand your situation and they may offer you a discount, or even help you out for free (really).
30. A lifestyle that’s not for you
Are you living someone else’s life? You shouldn’t.
Remember? Panic could be your inner voice telling you your current lifestyle isn’t for you — whether it’s a career path, a relationship, unrealistic goals and expectations, or dealing with fake people.
A life that’s not meant for you could be the main cause of your panic attacks, so trust your intuition if you want to improve your mental health.
Thank you for reading this article! I hope it helped you have more clarity, and understand what are the common causes of panic.
I have created a list of these thirty triggers, which can be downloaded for free here: