Stress is a natural human response to a feeling of having your survival threatened – whether physically or emotionally.
As we accumulate stress, muscles contract, and every system of the body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode, which means that adrenaline shoots through the bloodstream, which in turn, heightens one’s stress levels.
A panic attack is simply an advanced version of the above, but only on a physiological level.
Therefore, if we analyze the things that cause stress, we can discover that those same things will cause panic attacks?
No, its not that simple. For example, a person who does not suffer from panic attacks, may become stressed by:
- an overbearing boss
- moving home
- a romantic break up
- an inability to find romance
- financial hardship
But a person who suffers from panic, may be completely unaffected by the above. This is because panic attacks are triggered by an event which contains a unique trigger.
This will be a trigger that only becomes activated by that event. A simple example of this would be:
If a person has a subconscious fear of heights, but has carefully avoided heights, until they have a car accident, and are airlifted to a hospital, while unconscious. When they awake, in the helicopter, they will be far more afraid of being in a helicopter, than of the consequences of the accident. That is when a panic attack may ensue.
Theories abound that certain substances enhance panic, such as those which increase heart rate, like coffee, cigarettes, and and alcohol. However, because panic is a psychological state, triggered by unique events, these substances are unlikely to affect a panic attack, in any real way.
The rationale behind saying this, stems from the fact that the sympathetic nervous system releases hormones which accelerate the heart rate. There has been no proof that an increased heart rate can cause a panic attack. If that were true, every time we worked out at the gym, we would have a panic attack.
Having said that, it could be viable to assume that certain psychiatric drugs could worsen, and increase panic attacks. But this would be due to the psychotropic effect of the drugs, which can make people extremely paranoid, anxious, and even delusional.
Similarly, excess alcohol can send certain people into hyper-paranoid states, during which all logic evaporates. I know a man who is one of the sanest people one will ever find, but one night, when he drank too much at a club, he became convinced that his girlfriend endorsed pedophiles, simply because she was dancing to a Michael Jackson song.
He had a complete panic attack about this, in which he was almost unable to breathe. Only the next morning, after he had slept it off, could he see how absurd this entire episode had been.
Was it the stimulating effect of the alcohol which had caused this particular panic? Well, technically, alcohol is a depressant or a relaxant, not a stimulant. That said, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine, all have mild psychotropic properties, and when combined, can cause alterations in perception.
True stimulants, such as amphetamines, cocaine, and ADHD medication, have a psychoactive effect, and can most certainly enhance an underlying fear, which can then lead to a panic attack, but this is not caused by the fact that they are stimulants.
And finally, hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and MDMA will almost certainly induce panic, due to the terrifying doors of perception which they open, and which cannot be shut, while remaining on the drug.