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The Panic Loop: Learning Triggers and Underlying Causes of My Panic Attacks

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There is a subtle but important difference between the triggers and underlying causes of anxiety, and sometimes it can be hard to recognize this difference without help. Triggers are usually small, specific instances that put you on alert. Underlying causes are more about why you’re feeling the anxiety — what you’re actually thinking about. Clues to these can often be found in the ruminating or racing thoughts you have when feeling heightened anxiety or panic.

For many of us with anxiety or panic disorders, our underlying cause(s) have something to do with control. For instance, I tend to experience anxiety when I feel my behavior can influence the outcome of a situation. I had a panic attack when meeting my boyfriend’s parents because I believed if I wasn’t (or didn’t appear to be) good for him they would tell him they didn’t approve and it would lead to the end of our relationship. This was a particularly big deal to me because I’d started to realize I was in it for the long haul, and I’d never really felt that before. I can’t even explain how important it was to me that my boyfriend and his family felt like I belonged with them. And, to be clear, never, ever did my boyfriend or his family put any kind of expectations on me. They were and are nothing but kind, empathetic, and a joy to be around.

I realize now there are multiple levels on which these thoughts were not accurate. But that’s what happens with anxiety: something triggers it, and then your brain ruminates or races and you end up spiraling into this place where your thoughts feel real and inevitable and like the worst case scenario is automatically the most likely scenario. It takes a lot of work to get to the point where you can recognize your anxiety is running away with your thoughts and even more work to learn how to reframe those thoughts. But it is possible, and it is worth it. When you’ve put in the work, you get to the point where you feel a little anxious, a thought like that pops up, and instead of seizing it and spiraling it, your attitude is just kind of oh, you and then you move on. To get to this point, I highly recommend three things:

These three things helped me immensely, and even using just one of them is a great start.

For a long time, looking back on the experience of each of my panic attacks just brought up those feelings again, which is natural. It took a lot of work to distance myself from the experience of anxiety and to really learn it is not part of my personality; it’s part of my body. It’s biological. This depersonalizing is essential. The difference between “my anxiety” and “the anxiety I feel” is so incredibly important. If you do nothing else, I’d recommend talking about the anxiety you feel in this way.

Now that I have this perspective, I want to take the time to really break down that first panic attack and talk about triggers versus underlying causes. This process — thinking through the timeline and anatomy of a panic attack — is one that has been really helpful in identifying my triggers and underlying causes. It’s also helpful to do in the middle of an attack because you’re not distracting yourself (and making the problem worse next time), you’re giving yourself a focus and stepping outside of the experience of anxiety while still addressing it and dealing with the feelings and symptoms.

A panic attack functions like this: panic attack infographic

I’m sure you’ll be able to see in my description below how my thoughts followed the panic loop, but I’ll try to also be clear about which step I was experiencing at each time.

I woke up early, feeling what I considered a “normal” level of anxiety with regards to traveling. I’d been feeling this for a couple of years, so nothing seemed unusual or more heightened. I felt nauseous but also like I needed to go to the bathroom, so I spent the morning alternately sitting on the couch shaking my leg and leaning over the sink or toilet. Again, this felt “normal.” I didn’t recognize this initial feeling of anxiety as a trigger (step 1) because it had never escalated to a panic attack before. I was assuming once we got to the airport, I would be fine for the rest of the trip. Now, though, I see the waking up early as a trigger and I know this is my cue to start belly breathing or meditating.

Once we got to the airport, things felt better. Going through security was familiar, as was the flight. They both occupied my mind and I could sort of forget about the anxiety I was feeling. I was sure it was done and this was going to be an awesome trip. The next thing I knew, the flight attendant had announced we’d started our final descent, and I was crying quietly in my seat with my headphones in. Again, I didn’t recognize this as a trigger (step 1) because I didn’t know then that anticipation is a huge factor for me, and I didn’t know about control of my own behavior being one of my underlying causes. I hadn’t really thought through why meeting the parents was such a big deal this time, and I didn’t understand how high my expectations of myself were. I let myself cry, thinking that was it, and hoping my boyfriend’s parents didn’t notice. Everything was fine for the rest of the day because I had enough to keep me distracted.

The next morning, I was up at 4 something hurrying as quickly and as quietly as I could to the bathroom. The trigger here was actually something that we all have — the left side of my brain was alert because I was sleeping in a new place — but I didn’t know that (step 1). I wasn’t expecting it. My racing thoughts were as follows: What’s going on? Why do I still feel like throwing up? What if his parents can hear me crying? What if this doesn’t stop and I can’t go out and do anything today? Are they going to think I’m doing this on purpose? Are they going to think I’m like this all the time? Oh my God, what if they think I’m like this all the time — they won’t want him to be with me! What will I do if he thinks they’re right? What if I can’t get it together and he doesn’t want to deal with that and this is the end of our relationship? (step 2) All of those thoughts happened in about 30 seconds. Unbelievable, right? But this is what your underlying causes do. They hijack you. They make you panic and worry and think everything is controllable and your responsibility when it is not. They force you to assume the worst thing you can think of is the thing that is absolutely without a doubt going to happen. Mine — the need to be in control of my own behavior and fear of losing someone important to me — were out in full force. Anxiety tricked me into believing my actions, and more specifically my ability to hide how I was feeling, were all that were keeping me from doom. Add to that the intense physical symptoms like nausea, crying, or shortness of breath, and you are in the second circle of hell, in the middle of a storm with no hope of rest. This is a panic attack. It sucks.

Eventually this subsided, as panic attacks always do. I was able to stop crying, shower, and my boyfriend and I went out shopping at the outlet malls while I slowly drank some coffee and a protein shake. By the end of the day, I felt more calm, if not entirely myself, but I was left wondering if this would happen again and definitely scared of the possibility (steps 3 and 4). This cycle of events happened every morning I was there. It was hard to break because I was surrounded by triggers: unfamiliar places, unfamiliar people, not knowing what was expected of me. Add to this the expectations I placed on myself because of my underlying causes of anxiety, and I consider it a miracle I even made it out of the bedroom, let alone made some jokes at dinner. I was trapped in this cycle for the entire trip, and then for a few days after I got home.

Once you’re in it, the panic loop is incredibly hard to break because it’s self-perpetuating. Most of a panic attack is not about whatever the initial thing that triggered your anxiety is. It’s about your fear of losing control in a public place or your fear that you’re going “crazy.” And then you start to fear having another panic attack, and you end up keeping yourself anxious all the time and actually giving yourself panic attacks.

The important thing to understand here, though, is that people don’t do this on purpose. People don’t say “you know what, let me have a panic attack right now.” (And if there are people who fake a panic attack as an excuse to get out of something, f*ck those people, those people suck). It’s important to understand panic is a physical, biological response, so when I say “give yourself panic attacks” what I mean is that you haven’t yet learned the tools to break the panic loop and so it continues. I don’t mean you’re intentionally doing this to yourself or that you are purposefully escalating your anxiety; I just mean your body feels something weird, your instincts respond a certain way, and that leads to more panic. I had about four or five months of what the f*ck is happening to me?! before I was ready to dive in and really start looking at my triggers and underlying causes. Then it took about a year of work to learn when I could expect to feel anxiety and how to work with it when I did. It was hard, but I have never done anything so worth it in my life.

If you’re still in your WTF phase, it gets better. I promise. It’s horrible AF now, but you can do this. You are not alone.

Originally published: July 8, 2016
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