Applied Psychology

Can Stress Cause Panic Attacks?

Apr 06, 2022 | By Saranne Durham
Can Stress Cause Panic Attacks? - SACAP
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As part of managing your stress levels, it’s good to know what symptoms can result because of being under pressure. When you do this, the question “Can stress cause panic attacks?” is a very relevant one. Especially when things at work are tough, you’re writing exams or experiencing challenges on a personal level.

What is Stress?

Stress can be both positive and negative. Positive stress is called Eustress. It is linked to something that we find exhilarating. It can give us bursts of energy to accomplish things. For example, spur us on to meet a deadline or try a new activity, like parasailing. Negative stress causes us to suffer. As a result, it can cause us both physical and mental harm. We can link negative stress to 4 different areas of our lives.

4 Types of Negative Stress

1. Physical Stress

Physical stress is linked to a situation wherein our bodies are put under pressure. This could be linked to trauma related to an injury, infection or after a surgical procedure. Alternatively, it can be as a result of physical exertion.

Trauma, which causes physical stress, can be as a result of factors that are within or out of our control. Things that are within our control include unhealthy eating habits and substance abuse. In contrast, allergies, many illnesses and usually environmental pollutants are not within our control.

Alternatively, something that causes us to react with a fight-or-flight response, can cause us physical stress. This is because our norm may not be to physically defend ourselves. Nor might it be to run very quickly away from something or someone.

2. Psycho-social Stress

There are various situations which cause us psycho-social stress. These are linked to our social interactions and thereby wellbeing. Relationship difficulties with those we love or those at work, can cause us to stress. Not being able to access resources such as money or food can put us under a lot of pressure. Especially, if you are unemployed or have others dependent on you. Isolation and a lack of social support are also causes of psych-social stress.

3. Psychological Stress

This kind of stress is linked to emotions, perception as well as cognitive processes. Psychological stress as related to emotions, is caused by intense feelings. For example, fear, anger or resentment. Perception stress is linked to issues in your past. These affect your thought processes or evaluation of situations and thereby your perception of the world around you. This also relates to self-esteem and how you interact with others. Cognitive stress is connected to our brain’s ability to process things. Such as situations that result in worry or guilt. Alternatively, it may result due to information overload or feeling like you are out of control.

4. Psycho-spiritual Stress

Psycho-spiritual stress is a result of a value, moral or ethical dilemma. This may be as a result of a crisis caused by being in a situation that goes against your core beliefs. It can also be triggered by believing that your life does not have meaning. Or that you do not make a productive or meaningful contribution within a setting, such as work or at home.

How does Stress Manifest?

Prolonged stress can manifest in a number of ways. Specifically, it impacts our physical, mental and social well being. There is no one-size-fits-all result of stress. In one person stress related symptoms may be the exact opposite of those experienced by someone else.

Physically it can result in muscle spasms, grinding of teeth constipation or diarrhoea. It can also cause tension headaches, a racing heart or chest pains. As well as a lack of appetite or comfort eating. Other common effects are insomnia or alternatively being very tired and needing to sleep more than usual.

Mentally, stress can cause us to have anxious thoughts, difficulty remembering things and be unable to concentrate properly. It can also result in irritability, mood swings and an inability to relax as well as escalating worrying and depression. Stress can cause us to be more emotional and reactive than usual. Or become very clinical and detached.

Stress impacts our behaviour and effectively changes how we interact with the world around us. It can cause us to seek out others to distract us from a situation. Or cause us to isolate ourselves. Stress manifesting in our lives can have negative impacts on our work and relationships suffer.

“Stress can impact us physically, mentally and emotionally.”

What Causes Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks are caused by intense fear. They are brought on suddenly and are triggered by something. A trigger can be environmental, situational or linked to our thoughts and perceptions. Often panic attacks are linked to a pre-emptive fear of having a panic attack. Which then causes someone to have a second-order fear, which is a fear of fear. Essentially, this can cause a continuous cycle that feeds into itself. Such that, panic becomes a functional impairment within someone’s life. When this happens, panic becomes a psychiatric illness.

“Panic attacks are related to fear.”

How does Stress Cause Panic Attacks?

Stress heightens our negative anxiety levels. Anyone, at any age, can experience negative anxiety. Negative anxiety manifests in symptoms such as panic attacks, dizziness, sweating, hyperventilating and having obsessive fixations or thoughts.

Thus, because stress can spike our negative anxiety, it can cause panic attacks. Stress is often rated on trigger lists as the number one reason for panic attacks.

Managing Stress Induced Panic Attacks

When stress causes panic attacks it can lead to a situation where one is unable to adequately perform everyday tasks.  In order to manage stress induced panic attacks, you need to manage your stress levels. While this is often easier said than done, it is possible.

5 Ways to Reduce the Risk of Stress Panic Attacks

  1. Know Your Triggers. Identify what your specific roots of feeling pressured are. This helps you better manage situations which are likely to spike your stress levels. Being aware of something decreases your fear of a situation and therefore your anxiety levels. Thereby, your chances of a panic attack.
  2. Understand What Calms You. Find something that, in a moment of pressure and escalating anxiety, can help you relax. For example, using refocusing techniques or self-guided imagery.
  3. Remove Tolerances. List the things that drain you. Specifically, those that you wouldn’t choose to have in your life. Then work at eliminating them and keeping them out of your life for good. If you can’t remove them altogether, then work out how to manage how much time you have to tolerate something.
  4. Exercise. Look for different ways of approaching exercise. Aim to do 20 minutes of light exercise, at least three times a week. It’ll release endorphins, which will boost your mood as well as help you relax.
  5. Get Enough Sleep. Getting enough sleep will help you to cope with everyday knocks as well as bigger pressures. Your body and mind use sleep to recover. This is especially important during high-stress periods.

“It’s possible to prevent a panic attack by reducing stress in your life.”

Helping Those Who Stress

Contemplate studying psychology if you have an interest in assisting people manage their stress levels and to better prevent panic attacks. The South African School of Applied Psychology (SACAP) offers various psychology certifications through the faculty of Applied Psychology. Courses can be studied part time as well as online. For more information, enquire now.

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