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Learn what triggers a Panic Attack

Most people are unable to identify the trigger when they have a Panic Attack.

Most people that experience Panic Attacks try to identify what triggers the attacks, especially if they have had several and want to be able to avoid the next one. The majority of people, however, are unable to identify the trigger or triggers on their own.

Watson and Rayner studied how fear is transmitted.

The story of Little Albert, a nine-month-old orphan that was the subject of a research study conducted by Watson and Rayner in 1919, describes why it is difficult to identify our triggers.

Watson and Rayner placed Little Albert in a room and gave him a white rat to play with. Little Albert cooed with delight because the animal was warm, and soft, and fuzzy. He showed no fear of the rat at all. To Little Albert, the white rat was a neutral stimulus.

After several repetitions of this, Watson and Rayner started to make a loud sound whenever Little Albert touched the rat. Not surprisingly, Little Albert cried and showed fear when he heard the noise. This is because the loud sound was an aversive stimulus.

Watson and Rayner made an infant afraid of a white rat.

After several repetitions of hearing the loud sound whenever Little Albert touched the white rat, Little Albert was again presented with only the white rat. This time he became distressed at seeing the white rat.

Watson and Rayner concluded that Little Albert had connected the white rat with the loud sound in his mind, and that the white rat had become paired with the loud sound.

The scientists also discovered that Little Albert’s fear of the white rat had generalized from the white rat to other furry objects that resembled a white rat, including a tiny rabbit, a furry dog, a seal-skin coat, and a Santa Claus beard.

You have become conditioned to fear neutral things in your environment when you have a Panic Attack.

Understanding Watson and Rayner’s research findings may help you better understand what triggers your own Panic Attacks.

How so? The aversive stimulus that originally frightened you (like the loud noise for Little Albert) likely became paired with a neutral stimulus (like the white rat for Little Albert), so that the neutral stimulus became a conditioned stimulus that elicits fear (like the white rat for Little Albert).

Your fear of the conditioned stimulus likely then generalized to other previously neutral stimuli and became conditioned stimuli (like the rabbit, the furry dog, the seal skin coat, and the Santa Claus beard for Little Albert) to such a complex degree that you will never be able to identify the original trigger (aversive stimulus) in your environment.

If Little Albert had been old enough to speak, he likely would not have been able to explain why he was afraid of a seal skin coat, even though he had participated in the experiments with Watson and Rayner. Make sense?

You don’t have to be afraid when you have a Panic Attack because you are not in danger.

In my private practice as a psychologist, I have worked with many clients that have experienced Panic Attacks. I tell all my clients the story of Little Albert, which enables them to stop trying to identify the trigger or triggers for their Panic Attacks.

Instead, the story of Little Albert allows them to tell themselves, “Oh. I’ve seen a white rat. Or, I’ve seen a rabbit. That’s all.”

From there, it’s not a great distance to say to themselves, “I’m not in danger. It’s just a white rabbit, or it’s just a furry dog,” in the same way that Little Albert, had he been older, would have been able to say to himself, “It’s not a loud noise, it’s just a white rat.”

You may continue to try to determine what your triggers are, and how neutral stimuli became paired with your fear of an aversive stimuli, but in my experience, I anticipate you will not be able to uncover the connections.

Tell yourself you are safe — and believe it.

The moral of the story? I’m hoping you will begin to believe, deep in your core, that there is nothing to be afraid of when you have your next Panic Attack.

I encourage my clients to try to bring on a Panic Attack so that they can practice telling themselves there is nothing to fear. It’s a major step to be able to tell yourself, as you feel a Panic Attack coming on, that you are safe and that there is nothing to be afraid of.

You can experience the physical symptoms of a Panic Attack without fear.

Once you get there, you can weather the symptoms of a Panic Attack without fear. After all, the symptoms are just physical sensations and nothing more.

Common symptoms of Panic Attacks include:

  1. palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  2. sweating
  3. trembling or shaking
  4. sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  5. feeling of choking
  6. chest pain or discomfort

For example, your heart pounds when you put on your running shoes and go for a run. This doesn’t frighten you. Similarly, you sweat when you go for a run, but this doesn’t scare you either. You may shake when you’ve had too many cups of coffee, but this isn’t frightening. And so on.

You have seen a white rat or a rabbit. Nothing more.

Many people find it helpful to understand that what has triggered their primitive brain to believe that death is imminent in a Panic Attack is just a white rat or a rabbit because this understanding can help them to dismantle future Panic Attacks, and frequently to stop them altogether.

In the last blog post in this series of four, you can learn about How to stop a Panic Attack. The groundwork has been laid in the first three posts for you to be able to accomplish.

The compete list of posts in this series, if you would like to learn additional background information and have not read the series in order, includes:

  1. How psychologists treat Panic Attacks
  2. Why we have Panic Attacks
  3. What triggers a Panic Attack
  4. How to stop a Panic Attack.

— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

If you would like support, contact me to schedule an appointment or a free 15 minute consultation.

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