What Triggers Your Anxiety Attacks?

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • In our Questions and Answers section Fronzenicee asks:


    Does anyone know what it's called when there is a specific event that triggers an anxiety attack?


    The question refers to the events commonly associated with a specific phobia. Fear of specific situations, or events, are typical of phobias. Pretty much everyone I know can point to something or someone that either makes them go rigid with fear, run away, or feel extremely uncomfortable. Various psychological problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder or schizophrenia have anxiety attacks as a symptom.


    Another interesting aspect of the question is the ‚Äėspecific event' element. It's interesting from my perspective as a psychologist because there actually appears to be no one specific cause for anxiety attacks. The nearest we've got to understanding the triggers is that some interplay seems to exist between physical/genetic vulnerability, thought processes and external stressors. The susceptibility to false alarms in terms of ‚Äėreal' threat can run in families, but not always. It's also often the case that the person who suffers with anxiety attacks has a history of anxiety sensitivity, or has been abused (physically or sexually) as a child.

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    When we talk of specific phobias it means we can drill something down to a fear that is highly specific. Needle phobia, for example, is actually called belonophobia (fear of needles), but there is also aichmophobia (fear of sharp objects) and trypanophobia (fear of injections). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) says a specific phobia is "marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable, cued by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation (e.g. flying, heights, animals, receiving an injection, seeing blood)."


    When a phobia develops it is almost invariably due to a feared association being formed. It's what psychologists refer to as classical conditioning. This form of learning helps us associate all sorts of everyday activities with their consequences such as a doorbell, a telephone, a buzzing wasp, and so on. It's a simple, quick and effective form of learning. The down side is that we can just as easily develop fears through this very method. A big dog snarling and snapping at you as a child can quickly generalize to a fear of all dogs. Sometimes the initial fear can spread to other objects, events or situations. I once knew a lady with a fear of dogs who later developed a fear of motorcycles or other loud engines. The noise they produced was sufficient to trigger a fear response of dizziness, racing pulse, tight chest and the need to get away from the situation as fast as possible. Even the anticipation of coming into contact with the feared object or situation can be sufficient to trigger a stress reaction. The good news is that if something can be learned it can be changed, and this is the basis of treatments for specific phobias.


    So exactly what are these stress reactions? Well, they can take many forms, but a full blown reaction includes the symptoms previously mentioned and a variety of others such as shivering, hot flushes, nausea and sometimes vomiting, peripheral numbness, some level of incontinence, The simplest way to prevent the symptoms associated with a specific event causing anxiety is to avoid it. For example, if your fear is boats, you take an aircraft or you find an alternative mode of transport. If it's getting in an elevator you use the stairs. Of course if your phobia relates to coming into contact with birds or men with beards, then the probability of making contact with the feared situation increases. For other people, their debility is all-consuming because, for example, they fear stepping outside the door.

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    Anxiety or panic attacks may be symptoms of a broader range of symptoms known as anxiety disorder. From what we known of anxiety attacks it is clear that they can develop into more complex psychological problems. The experience of an anxiety attack can quickly develop into a phobia, which invariably means the person will try to avoid the feared situation or event again. But then the mere anticipation of it happening again can trigger a further anxiety attack. This can quickly generalize into a panic disorder in which the person may also become agoraphobic.


    I'm interested in the issues and events that trigger your anxiety attacks. For example, when did they start? Have they extended to include other things? How do you cope with the situation?

Published On: May 03, 2010