8 Everyday Habits That Could Trigger a Panic Attack
A panic attack can seem like it comes out of nowhere, but they’re often triggered by negative thought patterns and unhealthy emotional habits. Watch out for these common panic attack triggers.
What is a panic attack?
There’s a big difference between feeling nervous and having a full-blown panic attack. “A panic attack is a sudden state of intense fear or panic that often appears to come out of the blue,” explains Oklahoma City-based therapist Thai-An Truong, LPC, LADC. She says that the symptoms will peak in minutes and last about half an hour, but most people will feel the exhaustion and residual effects hours afterward. According to Truong, the most common symptoms are increased heart rate, heart palpitations, chest pain, sweating, shaking, difficulty breathing, and hyperventilating. What causes panic attacks depend on the individual, so identifying your personal panic attack triggers may help you to manage them. By cutting out some of these habits—with the help of a therapist if necessary—you may notice a difference in your overall anxiety levels. Learn to recognize the 10 clear signs of a panic attack.
Magnification—turning an event into something more serious than it is—can lead to you believing something that happens is “the end of the world,” or something that you “won’t survive.” “You may even interpret a moment of stress as you ‘going crazy,’” says Truong. People with phobias may tell themselves that the source of their fear will kill or severely harm them (e.g. the elevator will drop any minute; the germs will contaminate my child and kill them).
Catastrophic misinterpretations of physical sensations often become panic attack triggers, says Truong. You feel a heart palpitation and think you are having a heart attack or decide a neck pain is a potential blood clot that will lead to a stroke, for example. Here are some sure-fire ways to calm down during a panic attack.
Jumping to conclusions
Jumping to conclusions can be bad for your anxiety levels in different ways, explains Truong. You may engage in fortune telling (predicting a negative future) or mind-reading (predicting others as viewing you negatively). For example, you might tell yourself on your way to an interview that you’ll fail and everyone will hate you. Or because your husband didn’t call you back, he must have gotten into a car accident and could be dead right now.
Emotional reasoning is reaching the conclusion that your emotional response proves something is true, regardless of the facts or evidence. “You feel it, so you think it is true,” explains Truong. For example, you feel guilty about something, so you conclude you must be guilty—even though there’s absolutely no evidence that you have done anything wrong. Find out how tactical breathing can help you calm down from a panic attack.
Spending too much time on social media
Staying up with your friends through social media is nice, but it can lead people to make comparisons that trigger negative thought processes, says Truong. Obsessing over other people’s social media posts can lead to thoughts like “I’ll never make it to where they are,” or “Another year has passed and I’m still in the same situation,” or “I’ll never find a partner and I’ll die alone and miserable”—sowing the seeds of a panic attack.
Over-analyzing can be a thought pattern that leads to anxiety, especially if it leads someone to predict a negative future or to believe others see them in a negative light, says Truong. For example, “My boss didn’t respond to my call… he may be mad at me… I may get fired… I’ll become homeless.” Here are 11 simple habits to help stop yourself from overthinking everything.
Although procrastination can relieve some anxiety in the short term, it can become addictive, explains Truong, and pave the way for an attack. If you’re putting off something you don’t want to do for a more pleasurable pursuit, you’ll feel better in the short run, says Truong. “But the long-term consequences can lead to panic if it’s creating a catastrophic thought process like ‘now I’ll flunk out of school or I’ll fail or I’ll lose my job,’ etc.”
Spending too much time alone
A little isolation can be good for people with anxiety, but it depends on their thought processes. If they’re thinking “I love this alone time,” then it will lead to feelings of contentment, explains Truong. But if they’re thinking “I’m lonely and no one will ever want me and I’ll die a lonely death,” it can be one of many possible panic attack triggers. Find out the 14 things people with anxiety will understand.
Therapy can assist you in identifying your panic attack triggers. Truong uses Dr. David Burns’ TEAM-CBT treatment approach, which has four treatment models for treating anxiety/panic: the Cognitive Model, the Motivational Model, the Exposure Model, and the Hidden Emotion Model. “It often takes a combination of all four models to help a client overcome anxiety and panic attacks,” explains Truong. “Because everyone is unique, we often can’t predict the tools that will work for them, so we take a systematic approach to go through one at a time, and it’s a trial-and-error elimination process.” For example, the Cognitive Model involves examining the negative thoughts of a person during a panic attack and working through a variety of cognitive techniques to find the ones that will help them shift their thinking patterns. This often challenges anxious thought processes that magnify physical symptoms and spiral out of control. Next, learn the 11 tips for managing anxiety and panic disorder.