What Triggers a
Panic Attack?

Do you know what triggers a panic attack? While many triggers are commonly shared, the complete answer will be different for everyone, and the real reason, hidden in the shadows.

When I first started to genuinely consider that my misery was due to anxiety and panic, my list of triggers was relatively short.  And yes, I fought the idea for years, insisting to family, friends, and doctors that I was not stressed, that this was "definitely not just anxiety"... as I was convinced that there was something physically very wrong with me. I was also extremely frustrated that no one believed how 'off' I felt, and the fact that they didn't seem to want to really understand.

As I began to look for ways to avoid having a panic attack, I at first became increasingly less tolerant of changes in the environment. I didn't understand that my body was stuck in survival mode and that my mind was constantly on high alert, and my intense focus on everything 'out there' was actually making things worse.

It meant that I was hyper alert to everything: physical sensations, sounds, etc. The tiniest change in the environment, whether it was in the environment of my body or the surrounding environment I happened to be in, would set off a chain of events, physical reactions, that I had little to no control over.

At first, I just avoided what triggered me, but that tactic very quickly began to interfere with my daily routine. Going to the grocery store became a major hurdle! I had to plan when I was going (not too crowded, not completely empty) and eat at 'the right time' before I went (and the 'right' foods). If I ate too early, I might get hungry and get triggered into panic by low blood sugar. If I ate then left the house right away, I might feel too full while driving or walking around the store and panic from the discomfort.

But identifying your triggers is a big step toward developing more awareness. Make a list, not with the intent to avoid what seems to be causing an attack (though it is normal to do this in the beginning), but to discover what you need. My list below might help you get started, but tune into your own experience and write down every connection you uncover, no matter how strange it may seem.

Every detail is important!

Your list will most likely get longer before you begin to feel better. This is normal!

common panic attack triggers

  • Unfamiliar smells
  • Fluorescent lighting
  • Wide open spaces
  • Crowded places
  • Overwhelming background noise, such as in a restaurant
  • Food (the list of foods I avoided was very specific and got very long)
  • Low blood sugar

Every panic attack trigger is something that has been programmed into your subconscious as something dangerous. It happens naturally, and is meant to be an automatic mechanism that serves your well-being. 

Think about it... do you tell your body how to digest, or how to properly metabolize hormones? Do you have to analyze and calculate the speed, size, and distance of an out of control car to know that you should jump out of its way?

If we had to consciously manage every piece of information that comes to us every moment, or instruct the body to do what it does to stay alive, we couldn't do it. Being programmable is part of our human design and is an aspect of us that is actually one of our greatest assets!

Much of what your mind and body does together is done behind the scenes, below the level of your conscious awareness, and it results in countless automatic reactions. But when this mechanism gets stuck on 'identifying danger,' it can start to work against us. Most of the time you won't even know why you do what you do, not completely, and you may begin to feel like you are at war with your body.

The good news is that you can reprogram yourself to feel safe and redirect the mechanism that is looking for danger to look for something else. 

reprogramming yourself

Start by building a new trigger list, let's call them "Soothers," outer signal that will result in more positive automatic reactions from your mind and body.

Here's an example to try:

Every day, for one week, do the same ritual, something that you find comforting. Take a bath, ride a bike, listen to quiet music with headphones, etc. When you do your chosen activity, have with you a cloth that you've sprayed with an essential oil, and frequently hold it close to you nose so you can smell its fragrance.

After you've completed at least one week of doing this every day, carry the scented cloth with you. When you start to feel a rise in anxiety, take it out and breathe in "relaxation" with your eyes closed. Observe what happens.

Why do this?

Engaging the olfactory nerves is one of the quickest ways to program a response in the body. You are intentionally creating relaxation and, at the same time, making an association of the feeling with a particular scent.

This is a powerful tool!

You can also use this to reprogram what triggers a panic attack into something that will actually soothe you. Magic!

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