• Anxiety and panic attacks can be debilitating, but where do they come from?

  • Rita Santos explores how our past experiences inform our present and what you can do to manage feelings of panic

  • We have therapists and counsellors available to support you with anxiety and panic attacks – find yours here

Anxiety is a future-oriented emotion that involves a sense of uncontrollability and unpredictability over potential anticipated threats. The person experiencing anxiety as an emotion focuses their attention on potential threats or threatening situations and on their own ability to cope or respond effectively to such threats or situations.

Where anxiety comes from

Our brain can learn; it can store knowledge in our memory. We continuously learn throughout our lives, and our decisions (both unconscious and conscious) are dependent on such ongoing learning. For one, it means we are able to use our personal past experiences to make predictions about the future. (Something else we can thank evolution for.)

For example, imagine that you were never scared of bees – in fact, you always saw them as an important part of the natural world and actually thought they were quite beautiful. Then comes the day when you are stung by one. It was not pleasant and you had a rather bad experience. Your brain has now learned that bees are dangerous, and from then on it is not only able to enter survival mode if you hear or spot a bee, but also to anticipate that there will likely be bees around if you visit gardens or parks.

An important characteristic of anxiety is uncertainty; uncertainty about danger and where or when it will occur. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand that there is uncertainty also about the duration of such danger (e.g. how long will the bee be around me? How long will I be in pain if it stings me?), and what should be done to either cope or prevent it from happening in the first place.

The relationship between learning and memory is also a very personal one. Each of us will develop a unique memory of a particular experience (of being stung by a bee, for example), which means each of us will have different experiences and approaches to uncertainty, anticipation and anxiety. This is because such memories depend not only on what and how something happened, but also on when – and when things happened also has important links to other events in your life.

This means that even if there seems to be no apparent reason for a panic attack, there is always something triggering such episodes, and the reason might lay in previous experiences that have occurred in your life some time before, which have been learned and stored in your memory. Stressful situations in life tend to have a great emotional impact on us. These could be related to your own or someone in your family’s health, relationship problems, big changes in life, accidents, financial issues, or work-related difficulties, and although such situations might no longer be present when you experience your first panic attack, they have had an impact on you.

It might be the case that, when you had your first panic attack, you were feeling more vulnerable because of those experiences, could finally relax after an exhausting life period, or there was a small trigger that brought everything rushing back.

At the time of writing, the world is suffering through the Covid-19 pandemic. I do not think it would be at all surprising if, after the pandemic, many people start experiencing panic attacks as they try to get their lives back to normal.

Identify stressful or difficult experiences from your past

Our experiences shape who we are and contribute greatly to the way we see and interact with the world. They are important to understand why we react to difficult or fearful situations in particular ways or even why some of us tend to engage in anticipation more than others.

To take one more step toward the understanding of your own experience of panic attacks, identify experiences from your past that were stressful, difficult or during which you were scared or anxious and record these in your notebook. For example:

“My first panic attack came after I was made redundant.”

“As my relationship broke down, I noticed I was having more panic attacks.”

“My panic attacks seemed to worsen when I went back to work after sick leave.”

Try and identify and note down your physical sensations during a panic attack and what triggers such episodes, and how these might be related to your life experiences.

By forming a picture of your panic attacks, you can better arm yourself with information to move on to address them. As well as trying to find ways to help yourself, you may want to consider getting professional support.

Rita Santos is the author of Navigating Panic Attacks: Understanding Your Fear and Reclaiming Your Life

Further reading

Learning your triggers to overcome anxiety

How to support your partner through a panic attack

EMDR took the edge off my panic

Anxiety and panic: how keeping them close helps them go away

How can hypnotherapy help with anxiety?