Why do I get panic attacks for no reason?
During difficult times, you will likely have a panic attack. Don’t be surprised right now if you or someone you know is feeling more anxious. It can seem like panic comes out of the blue, but there are often reasons why it happens.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a case of extreme anxiety, the same as an anxiety attack. The first time you have a panic attack, it can feel terrifying. It can seem like a heart attack, a stroke, going mad or losing control. It could be a fear of anything, but it’s the expectation that something terrible will happen.
Why do you get panic attacks?
The more stressed you are, the more likely you will have a panic attack. If you don’t take time to slow down, rest or relax, you’ll have too much adrenalin and cortisol floating around in your body. These stress hormones help you to cope, but too many of them can create uncomfortable physical sensations. See if you recognise any of these:
- Tight chest
- Feeling sick
- Irritable bowel
- Frequent weeing
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Dry mouth
- Blurred vision
- Tingling in fingers or toes
- Muscle tension
- Tight throat
- Flushed face
Anxiety and panic can create these physical sensations, but often you don’t expect them. It can be confusing, and your mind quickly misinterprets these sensations to be signs of something catastrophic.
Instability creates more uncertainty.
At times like these, you can feel more stressed. Your jobs and security are in doubt, and you are juggling work, parenting, relationship, health and self-care. You’ve lost some of the freedom to go out and see friends and family. Difficult times create an environment for feeling overwhelmed.
Other experiences can also create instability. For example, grief can wrench away a loved one, and life will never be the same again.
A lack of sleep and fatigue can deplete you of the rest and recuperation that helps you cope with the emotional demands of the day.
Too much caffeine can overstimulate your body.
Too much alcohol can give you a hangover, which creates a spike in your adrenalin the next day. Alcohol and medication withdrawal can kick your body into distress, which can feel overwhelming.
Are panic attacks dangerous?
Under most circumstances, panic attacks are not dangerous. It does not harm you. They can feel terrifying and distressing, but it is nothing more than extreme anxiety. However, there are a few factors that should you cause caution.
If you depend on alcohol and benzodiazepines (diazepam, lorazepam, temazepam, etc.), you can suffer epileptic seizures. Your body develops a tolerance to these substances, and if you reduce them too quickly, you risk yourself.
Withdrawal from other medications such as anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, sleeping tablets and beta-blockers can cause extreme agitation, including suicidal urges. If taking any of these drugs, you should discuss a reduction with your prescriber rather than going cold turkey.
Why do I get panic attacks at night?
During the day, it can be easy to distract yourself from work or other activities. When you slow down, relax and get into bed, your mind can get flooded with negative thoughts. Once you’ve experienced panic, it’s natural to be concerned that you’ll have another it again. You can feel anxious about feeling anxious.
Memories of past traumas or losses can catch up with you too. You may never have dealt with what happened. Your thoughts and feelings about it have reawakened. It isn’t a sign that something is wrong; it’s what can happen.
The solution to panic attacks is in what you do with it.
How do you stop a panic attack?
Many people try to stop a panic attack in the wrong way. It’s natural to distract yourself, avoid places you have had a panic attack, or take extra precautions to help you stay in control. While these strategies can temporarily relieve you, they don’t eliminate your panic attacks.
It seems counterintuitive, but the best solution is to let yourself feel the fear. Avoidance makes it worse because you get a rebound effect from suppressing it. The anxiety comes back more frequently and with higher intensity.
What strategies help me to cope with panic?
When you feel extreme anxiety, your body has been pushed down on the accelerator. To turn fear down, you must learn how to apply the brakes.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a breathing exercise designed to help you breathe more relaxedly. When you are tenser, your body breathes from your chest. You take in shorter breaths, and the chest muscles get overworked. It can create chest pain or tension, which can be confused with having a heart attack.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a simple and effective tool for reducing anxiety and panic. Practice it regularly, and it will help you hugely.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is an exercise that focuses on relaxing the whole body. It works by first tensing each of your muscles and then relaxing them as much as possible. The process takes a little longer, and it can be beneficial when you suffer from tension in your neck, back and shoulders.
Mindful awareness exercise teaches you how to get out of your head and into your body. Mindfulness meditations begin by developing your observational skills. You can use your senses and your breathing to rest your attention on one thing at a time. It works because it teaches you to slow down, notice, describe your emotions, let your thoughts be, be more self-compassionate and undertake activities with greater awareness.
Is relaxation the best strategy to reduce panic?
As I said, when things get fast in your body and mind, you must learn how to apply the brakes. However, if you remain scared of using the accelerator, then anxiety can continue to hold on to your life. It’s useful to take steps outside your comfort zone too.
Fear exposure is the most powerful method for getting rid of panic attacks. It is also the best strategy for reducing anxiety, OCD and traumatic stress. Exposure helps you to confront your fears by teaching you to approach your trepidation instead of avoiding it.
Therapy includes various types of exposure treatment. It includes interoceptive exposure, in-vivo exposure and imaginal exposure.
Interoceptive exposure is an exercise that induces physical sensation in your body. For example, hyperventilating can create a tight chest, dizziness, and sweating. When you breathe quickly through a straw, it can create a tightness in the throat. If you stare at some black and white squares, it will blur your vision.
Therapists encourage panic sufferers to do these exercises to learn to handle fear more effectively.
In-vivo exposure is about applying exposure to your life. If you avoid places, objects or situations, you can put yourself in them. For example, using public transport, going for a walk on your own, or going into a confined space.
Exposure does increase your anxiety, but it needs to be so that you can learn to respond to it in more useful ways. Usually, you avoid it, so you don’t realise what else to do. By confronting your fears, you create the opportunity to do something different. Exposure gives you the freedom to live.
Words and images often trigger people’s anxiety, obsessions or panic. If you avoid thinking about specific things, imaginal exposure can also reduce the fear. It teaches you to be less afraid of language, which is simply something passing through your mind.
In therapy, I often integrate the different types of exposure because it propels me forward. For example, if you avoided the bus, I’d ask you to imagine your fears while riding on the bus.
I encourage therapists to do this work with their clients before asking them to do it independently. People make much quicker progress when they do exposure work with their therapist. It is called therapist-aided exposure.
If you have started exposure work and you are stuck, ask your therapist if they can do some of the exercises with you.
Panic attacks happen for a reason.
Panic attacks can come out of the blue, but you are probably stressed anyway. Avoidance is natural, but it increases your fear of having a panic attack.
You can eliminate panic attacks by learning to apply the brakes with relaxation or mindfulness meditation. These strategies are the first steps in your recovery.
The second part of panic treatment is to undertake fear exposure. Inducing physical sensations, confronting the fear in your life and allowing the scary words and images to come into your mind. Your therapist can jointly support you throughout the exposure treatment.
Panic needn’t keep ruling your life; you can learn to reduce its adverse effect. It will take patience, persistence and practice. And I promise you that it will be worth it.