Panic attacks can be overwhelming and exhausting, leaving us feeling out of control. You can feel your own heart beating in your chest, you start feeling numbness or tingling in your arms or legs, and you suddenly find yourself afraid of going crazy, dying or possibly losing control. 

This cycle can grow and become a vicious circle from which it seems as if there’s no escape. Understanding what is happening and the fears behind panic can help us to better control ourselves.

So, what causes panic attacks? As hard is it is to hear, you cause it! Nothing outside of you causes it. This is the unfortunate reality of what actually ends up happening. To combat this, we need to understand something about the different stages of anxiety and panic attacks.

The Surge of Adrenaline

After experiencing external anxiety, you worry about your body’s feelings and symptoms, and end up thinking about them too much. This causes your body to sense fear, which releases chemical stimulants into your body and it gets it ready for flight or flight. As adrenaline, sodium lactate and cortisol are released, your anxiety increases. This releases more stimulating chemicals into your body.

Bodily Sensations & Fear

Now the second stage of panic and anxiety starts. You no longer are concerned with the external, actual problem. You focus on the weird feelings and strange symptoms that your body is experiencing. You start to wonder, What is wrong with me? This leaves you more confused, lowering your defenses, making you even more sensitive, and raising your sense of panic and fear of losing control.

The Body Responds to Fear

The next stage of anxiety is that one’s breathing becomes more shallow and faster. You get a feeling that one can’t get enough air. Your brain might tell you that you need more air. Actually, you need more carbon dioxide and less air. What’s happening is that there’s an imbalance in your body between oxygen and carbon dioxide. As hard as it might be, you actually have to slow your breathing down. Try to hold your breath, focus on your heart and focusing on relaxing the organs in your body. Sometimes it helps to breathe into a small paper bag for ten minutes (while not fun, in 10-15 minutes you will feel much more relaxed).

We Don’t Slow Down

The next stage of anxiety is  where we put ourselves under time pressures in life. We rush around, become impatient with ourselves, and so forth. All of this causes our body to release all the chemicals (as above) all over again and start us down the road towards another panic attack.

Stimulants/Caffeine, etc.

One of the contributing factors for our panic attacks can be the presence of too many stimulants in our body. This includes caffeine (coffee/tea), energy drinks, sudafed, and certain stimulating medications. These can all potentially make us hyper at times, especially when we are tired. Your body and mind can only maintain a state of anxiety for a few hours at the most. After that point, you become fatigued and depressed.

Focus on Change

Remember, you will not lose control nor will you go insane! It takes time and lots of practice to stop fear and anxiety. Be kind to yourself. You will figure it out in time! Change requires a focus on working hard to change our responses to stress and anxiety. It will take daily work to reduce your stress and worries, over a long time.

David Lechnyr, LCSW is a Eugene therapist and counselor specializing in treating anxiety, stress, and panic attacks using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Frequently, these involve aspects of codependency, depression, perfectionism, self-esteem, self-compassion, and relationship issues. He received his graduate degree in 1992, is a member of the International Association for Cognitive Therapy, and has completed Level 2 Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy.