Panic Attack Triggers …
And why avoiding them is a bad idea
Struggling with constant anxiety, recurring panic attacks, or a full blown anxiety disorder? Avoiding anxiety and panic triggers might seem like the safest path, but let’s look at why this understandable and common response can be more foe than friend.
In this episode we’ll look at some of the mechanics of panic attacks and panic disorder, shedding light on why evading anxiety can inadvertently feed the beast, intensifying and fueling the cycle of fear. Prudent prudent avoidance in the face of true danger is a helpful survival tool, but avoidance can become problematic when we use it to sidestep anxiety and fear themselves, rather than actual danger.
Are You Subscribed To My Newsletter? Recovery tips. Updates on recovery resources. Encouragement. Inspiration. Empowerment. All delivered to your inbox! Subscribe here FREE. More Ways To Listen/Watch My Podcast: Helpful Recovery Resources:
Are You Subscribed To My Newsletter?
Recovery tips. Updates on recovery resources. Encouragement. Inspiration. Empowerment. All delivered to your inbox! Subscribe here FREE.
More Ways To Listen/Watch My Podcast:
Helpful Recovery Resources:
Avoiding Panic Attack Triggers
When struggling with recurring panic attacks or chronic bouts of intense anxiety, it makes some common sense to want to find your panic attack triggers and steer clear of them. This is the foundation of avoidance and while it seems like a good idea, it can really backfire on us!
Avoidance Isn’t Universally Bad
Avoidance isn’t all bad. It does in fact keep us safe, allow us to find effective solutions to problems sometimes, and has a place. But in our context – chronic and disordered anxiety – avoidance feels like a good idea but really isn’t
Afraid, But Still Safe
Remember that in the foundations of panic series we’ve talked about all the scary sensations and thoughts that come with high anxiety and panic attacks. We’ve talked about how it feels like you are in real danger and must take some kind of action in response, but that you are actually safe at all times – just really afraid and uncomfortable. This is important. Hang on to this concept.
If there was an actual danger or threat present, then like we said, avoidance might be a great idea. But when there is no actual danger or threat – only fear and discomfort that fuel themselves – then avoidance might make you feel better right away, but it fuels a cycle that makes things worse.
How Does Avoiding Panic Triggers Make Things Worse?
It confirms to your lizard brain that something really is wrong and that you really do need to escape or get away from those feelings. If we operate from the assertion that your lizard brain thinks its doing its job – but is always wrong about how dangerous this all is – then when you obey the command to avoid things that might make you anxious or trigger panic you are rewarding that part of your brain for being wrong and asking it to continue to trigger fear even when fear is ultimately not an appropriate response to what’s happening around you.
When you avoid, you are asking your amygdala to continue doing what it’s doing – firing off alarms and triggering that cascade of physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that aren’t warranted.
It also makes things worse because as you avoid – and get rewarded for that with immediate but temporary decreases in your anxiety and fear levels – you learn that more and more places, people, tasks, situations, and contexts must be avoided at all costs.
- Panic in the car? Stop driving.
- Panic in the supermarket? Stop going there.
- Panic in a restaurant? Don’t eat out any more.
- Panic in a movie theater? Never go to the movies again.
And worse, if you panic or feel really uncomfortable in a movie theater, not only does avoiding reinforce the idea that the theater is off limits but that avoidance will often generalize into avoidance of any situation that might involve feeling trapped or being seen by a large number of people when you get too scared and “make a scene”. It’s a pretty nasty mechanism that can – accidentally – turn a panic attack into full blown panic disorder or even agoraphobia over time.
More Resources That Explain Avoidance
Wait … WHAT?
This is where things get dicey for most people. If you find that what I am saying here offends you or just rubs you the wrong way, I understand. When I provide psychoeducational material focused on breaking avoidance habits and facing the things we fear, sometimes people are convinced that what I’m saying can’t possibly apply to their special, horrible, worse-than-everyone-elses anxiety.
Other times people will assume that I’ve never had a panic attack of that I’m lying about my own mental health history because I would never tell them to face panic if I ever actually felt it myself. These things do not offend me at all. I totally get it.
It’s completely OK if you turn off the podcast or video right now and storm away from my podcast or channel. Everyone kinda starts there. If you’re not at the point where facing the fear seems right for you, you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re not being defiant, and you’re not hopeless. Maybe this seems ridiculous to you now, and that’s OK.
Everyone gets here when they get here how they get here. Nobody hears content like this and just instantly and happily dives into the deep end of the pool. Be patient with yourself, give yourself space to explore all the concepts and consider all the options. You’ll make the choice that works for you when you’re ready and EVERY mental health helper should encourage and respect that personal process.
Doing The Opposite – Facing Fear
So, if avoidance seems like a good idea, but isn’t, then what now?
Well, that means that the opposite of avoidance – in simple terms – is a good idea. This means intentionally turning toward panic, anxiety, and all the things that come with it. Allowing them. Choosing to willfully tolerate them and surrender to them. That doesn’t mean giving up and being anxious and afraid forever. That means giving up the FIGHT, because avoidance is resistance and fighting.
Recovery Through New EXPERIENCES
As silly as this might sound, if you are struggling with chronic or disordered anxiety and experiencing recurring panic attacks, the “war” you might think you’re in isn’t a war at all. You only win it when you stop fighting it. Overcoming these issues is not about treating anxiety recovery as a battlefield. Its about treating it like a classroom for you brain.
If you’re not avoiding, then yes, you are going to choose to fully experience all the things the REALLY scare and disturb you – but remember when we said they’re not dangerous and that you’re always safe? That’s the magic part. We choose to stop avoiding and to face the things we fear so we can feed our brains experiences – the only language that part of your brain understands – that teach us that anxiety and even panic really stink, but do not warrant being treated like nightmarish disasters that must be escaped at all costs.
There’s A Whole Lot More
This is a lot to take in. I get that. And while I can’t cover all of this in a single podcast episode or video, I urge you to keep in mind that this is not just “feel the fear and do it anyway” or “just do it” or “mind over matter”. There are actual methods here and principles to follow along the way. Those cliches and overused summaries aren’t totally wrong – that is true – but they are woefully inadequate in describing how the recovery process actually works.
Do not glue yourself to “just do it” because that’s a gross oversimplification that leads to frustration, anger, and harsh self-judgment.
Almost all the podcast episodes and videos I’ve ever created talk about this process in some way. I wrote an entire book – The Anxious Truth – that lays out this process specifically for people struggling with panic attacks, panic disorder, and agoraphobia. There’s a ton of content here that you can access to help you begin to learn how how this works, what the goals are, what principles we follow as we go, and what ups and downs to expect along the way.
Nobody can tell you “how to overcome panic attacks” in one podcast episode, video, or comment. It takes time to learn, digest these concepts, wrestle with them (everyone does), and start to put them into practice. Please, take advantage of all the resources. I know you want to get better right now, but in my view that involves challenging and breaking your avoidance and safety seeking habits which takes time and effort.
Looking Ahead …
In the next Foundations of Panic episode we’re going to look at the “dysregulation” of your nervous system and how for many members of our community almost everything becomes a panic and anxiety trigger.
Links Of Interest
- Episode 152 – Agoraphobia Explained
- My Panic Attacks Explained Workshop
- My Agoraphobia Explained Workshop
- My Panic and Agoraphobia Recovery Guidebook
- Follow me on Instagram
- My YouTube Channel
- Follow me on TikTok
Disclaimer: The Anxious Truth is not therapy or a replacement for therapy. Listening to The Anxious Truth does not create a therapeutic relationship between you and the host or guests of the podcast. Information here is provided for psychoeducational purposes. As always, when you have questions about your own well-being, please consult your mental health and/or medical care providers. If you are having a mental health crisis, always reach out immediately for in-person help.
Are You Subscribed To My Newsletter? Recovery tips. Updates on recovery resources. Encouragement. Inspiration. Empowerment. All delivered to your inbox! Subscribe here FREE. Helpful Recovery Resources:
Podcast Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)
Are You Subscribed To My Newsletter?
Helpful Recovery Resources: