What causes panic attacks?

No one thing triggers panic attacks with total consistency. Remember that panic attacks are both psychological and physiological, so things that impact your body and/or your brain can influence panic attacks.

Every person is different. It’s worth thinking about the circumstances surrounding your panic attack to try and understand how you can keep it from happening again.

Things that may impact panic attacks:

  • High stress situations (panic attacks can happen during or after moments/periods of high stress)
  • Diet (hunger, dehydration, spikes in blood sugar, unfamiliar foods, etc.)
  • Any change to routine (traveling, moving, etc.)
  • More or less physical exercise than usual
  • Sleep (being tired, sleeping more/less than usual)
  • Social, mental, or emotional exhaustion
  • Drugs or alcohol (including prescription drugs and supplements)
  • Illness, injury, or a medical procedure
  • Hormone fluctuations (menstruating, transitioning, birth control, etc.)
  • Changes in weather or barometric pressure

After a panic attack, it’s common to worry about what caused it, and you may even find yourself obsessing about how to prevent it from happening again. This kind of thinking can be dangerous — you can cultivate fear and anxiety around certain circumstances, like flying in a plane or meeting new people — if you believe they are what triggered your panic attack. A therapist or other mental health professional can help you think through healthy ways to avoid panic attacks without creating anxiety or avoidance.

It’s okay if your panic attack is caused by something you find hard to explain or even take seriously yourself. I’ve had attacks caused by: taking a dance class, spraining my ankle, rock climbing, eating a peach too early in the morning, having a bad dream, being catcalled, having a yeast infection, seeing my partner be prepped for surgery, having blood drawn, drinking hot chocolate on an empty stomach, staying up late to catch an early flight, and plenty with no apparent cause.

Sometimes you just won’t be able to pin down the cause of an attack. That can be especially scary, but remember that there is a strong physiological component to panic attacks. Sometimes the cells and chemicals in our bodies and brains just do annoying stuff. Accepting that panic attacks are just one of many risks we assume by being living, conscious humans has helped me a lot.

This article is part of the “So You Had A Panic Attack” resource guide. Go back to the SYHAPA index page

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