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What Causes a Panic Attack?

“I’m freaking out!”

Panic attacks are scary because they typically occur suddenly and without cause.  This creates more fear, which just perpetuates the attack. One of the things that makes them even scarier is the physical symptoms we can often experience, such as, accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling, and shortness of breath.

So what is actually happening to us when we have a panic attack?  And how can we best “fight” this scary situation?

What causes a panic attack?

  1. Long term stress, fears and worries built up in your mind.

  2. Your subconscious mind begins to misinterpret those fears as a real (present) danger.

  3. “Fight or Flight” hormones (adrenaline) are released by the subconscious to help handle the perceived danger.

  4. Since you do not consciously see the danger, you don’t recognize the “out of context” hormone sensations. Therefore you begin to fear those sensations (i.e. shortness of breath, increased heart rate, upset stomach, restlessness).

  5. In response to this increased fear, even more “fight or flight” hormones are released.

  6. Fear increases as the sensations increase.

  7. Even more hormones are released.

  8. Steps 6 and 7 continue to repeat and amplify.


What should I do?

A common misconception is that we should figure out a way to avoid having them at all. However, this is not always so easy to accomplish. I like to look towards “solving” this issue by asking this question: How can I be prepared to recognize and handle a panic attack when it does happen?

  1. Recognize and acknowledge that you are having a panic attack (see list above).

  2. Know your personal physical symptoms.

  3. Focus on your breathing. Try breathing in for 5 seconds and out for 5 seconds repeatedly.

  4. Acknowledge and accept your anxiety.

  5. Get yourself to a safe place with safe people.

  6. Write down your thoughts after your panic attack.


Knowledge and awareness are some of our best weapons against fear of the unknown. Fear is what often times drives panic attacks. By understanding what is happening in our body and knowing how we will react when a panic attack occurs, we can begin to help our rational mind get back to the driver’s seat.


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