Why do I get panic attacks for no reason?

Find out what causes unexpected panic attacks and how to manage them

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Have you recently felt that you have had a panic attack for no reason? Do you get panic attacks and can’t understand why they happen?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) groups panic attacks into two categories - expected or unexpected. If you feel as though you have had a panic attack for no reason, it is likely that you have experienced one that would be considered unexpected.

What causes unexpected panic attacks?

Expected panic attacks are typically associated with a specific trigger such as crowds, flying or exams, whereas unexpected panic attacks have no apparent trigger and can seem to happen for no reason.

It is not yet known what causes panic attacks but certain factors may play an important role, including genetics, mental health conditionsmajor stress or having a predisposition to stress. Whilst there is usually a cause, panic attacks can often appear to be triggered by nothing at all.

Panic attacks are typically experienced as a result of misinterpreting physical symptoms of anxiety. Heart palpitations may be mistaken for symptoms of a heart attack, breathlessness or feeling faint may be taken as a sign that a person is collapsing or dying, and the racing thoughts can lead a person to think that they are losing control of their mind.

These misinterpretations – which a person may be unaware that they are doing – can trigger a panic attack, which seems to appear out of the blue.

Panic attack vs anxiety attack

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks certainly share a number of symptoms, but they are different. You can usually tell them apart by:

  • The intensity of the symptoms – panic attacks symptoms tend to be much more intense and severe than anxiety attack symptoms
  • The length of time the main symptoms occur over – panic attacks tend to start abruptly and finish quickly (usually 10 minutes or so), whereas anxiety can build and persist for months on end

What to do during a panic attack

There are strategies that you can learn to help you to cope with an unexpected panic attack, including the following:

  • As you are likely to hyperventilate during a panic attack, stop whatever you are doing when you feel one coming on (if it is safe to do so), close your eyes and focus on your breathing. During these moments, breathe in for three seconds, hold the breath for two seconds and then breathe out again for three seconds, taking deeper breaths than usual. Getting back in control of your breathing can help you to stop the panic attack from intensifying or lasting longer.
  • Learn and use positive mantras such as “this is just my anxiety” and “these feelings will pass” to stop your panic cycle. Panic attacks can cause you to think that you are going to collapse, have a heart attack or that you are going to lose control, which can result in you panicking even further. Having positive, factual and simple mantras to hand can help you to address and challenge your anxious thoughts so that you can alleviate the panic attack.
  • Distract yourself from your negative thoughts by shifting your focus from your panic attack onto your surroundings. Concentrate on one thing that is in your eye line, whether that is a vase, a plant, or a building. Allowing yourself to think about its colour, texture, shape and size can help you to calm your mind and relieve you from your panicked thoughts.

Self-care and treatment for people experiencing panic attacks for no reason

If you are suffering from panic attacks, it’s important to practise self-care and teach yourself relaxation strategies to help you get them under control. It is also recommended that you seek professional panic attack support, as this can help you to effectively manage them and prevent them from happening in the future.

  • Learning to relax – preventing yourself from becoming too stressed to help you manage your panic attacks. You may want to learn relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), use mindfulness apps or get involved in a yoga group to help minimise your day-to-day stresses
  • Communicating - talking to someone you trust about your thoughts and feelings, particularly the thoughts that are causing you to worry, can give you an opportunity to relieve any pent up frustrations and get advice, talk through solutions and hear the opinions of someone you trust
  • Accessing cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – CBT is a tried and tested therapeutic intervention that can help you to look into and address any dysfunctional thoughts that may be contributing to your panic

At Priory, our team of highly qualified specialists are experienced in delivering therapeutic interventions such as CBT to help people alleviate their panic attacks, and prescribing medication if deemed appropriate. With the help of our specialist team, a person can come to understand the underlying triggers for their panic attacks, recognise ways to alleviate their panic and learn how to minimise and manage panic attacks if and when they happen.

Page clinically reviewed by Dr Ian Nnatu (MB BS, PG DIP (CBT), MSc, FRCPsych, MRCPsych) Consultant Adult Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital North London

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