07/19/2012 05:44 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2012

From Confined Spaces to Urgent Emails: The Panic Button

For anxiety sufferers, elements of everyday life can trigger a panic attack. Sometimes it can come on without warning, and other times you know that an upcoming situation or activity will absolutely hit your panic button. Anxiety is a scary mental ailment that can rob you of the ability to actively participate in your own everyday, let alone live the life that you desire.

For some, there are the obvious triggers: financial stress, the breakdown of a relationship or a divorce, a death in the family, or public speaking. For others, they can be much more idiosyncratic, much like we all are. After I had my first attack, it seemed that anything and everything was a trigger: the subway was crowded, the lineup at the coffee shop was moving too slowly, or I was afraid of forgetting something when leaving the house. If it's possible to be a walking panic attack, I was it.

I spent too much time in a job that wasn't right for me, which triggered daily attacks as I went into the office. This pattern of my new-found morning ritual caused a never-ending cycle of fear: I knew that the moment I stepped out of my door each day I was going to face a mental battle. The thought of facing this was enough to bring on an episode, as I was panicking about the prospect of having a panic attack. Getting emails marked as "urgent" was also a trigger -- I spent most of my day on the computer, so you can imagine how frequent they were. Something about that pesky red exclamation mark beside the subject line would immediately bring on heart palpitations.

I'm still prone to an attack if I'm feeling tired, or worse, tired and on public transit. In one instance, the roads were so busy and the bus kept stopping. If it would stop for more than three seconds while waiting for traffic to move, I would start to feel panicky. I'd worry about being late. Then, with lightning speed my thoughts ran wild and always with a negative slant. I'd think, "What if I suddenly feel nauseous and I'm stuck on this bus -- there are no bathrooms on here!" (I wasn't feeling sick and there was nothing physically wrong.) A tidal wave of fear ran through my body, the way I'd imagine one would feel while being held at gunpoint. I started questioning if I was about to completely lose my mind and start screaming (in a likeness of Regan from The Exorcist): "SOMEBODY GET ME THE HELL OUTTA HERE!"

I was curious about what other people's triggers are, so I asked around. Something of interest is that almost all of those who offered their stories were women. I had to dig really deep to find men who were willing to talk. This tells me that there's something going on with men and anxiety (and it's not because they don't experience it), so I'm going to explore this next time. Stay tuned for that.

If you ever question whether your own panic buttons are odd or that you've been touched by "the crazy," you needn't worry. They feel weird for everyone who suffers. Perhaps some of these triggers and symptoms strike a chord with you:

  • Mary, a youth worker, was in a car accident during her teens. Years later, she started having panic attacks when she sat in the passenger seat of a car. She felt a wave of heat rush through her head, butterflies in her stomach, accelerated breathing and heart rate, and an imagined paralysis throughout her body. They're less frequent now, and she's learned how to cope when she senses one coming on.
  • Jesse, a bartender, experiences extreme tightness in his chest and shortness of breath, followed by an elevated heart rate whenever he's in a confined space, like the subway or an airplane. The worry of not being able to get outside whenever he needs to is what triggers his attacks. Though the frequency of these episodes has lessened over time, he's still aware that these situations could hit his panic button, so he calms himself by taking deep breaths.
  • Shannon, a communications practitioner, feels anxious if she's out in public when feeling even mildly depressed. She sees others looking so "normal and happy," which gives her a sense of guilt for not feeling the same -- she's left wondering if she's emotionally spinning out of control. Her symptoms have more of a slow build; her stomach drops and she starts getting a tingling numbness in her hands and feet. During really bad attacks, she can sometimes hyperventilate.
  • Alida, a psychology student, finds that being out in hot weather can bring on a panic attack. She starts to feel like she's unable to breathe, which jump starts her heart rate.
  • For Jamie, an entrepreneur, feeling overwhelmed by work is one of his triggers. The pressure makes him jittery and gives him migraine headaches, which can feel like anxiety symptoms -- ultimately leading to an attack.

Others have a hard time with social situations, feeling unsure about a relationship, insomnia, or walking on a crowded street. If you ever feel like your triggers are petty or strange, I'm quite certain someone else out there experiences the same issue. Seriously.

There are plenty of resources available to control the severity and frequency of panic attacks. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, relaxation techniques, learning to control your breathing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle are just a few. If you haven't already, I encourage you to talk to a professional and do some research about anxiety to find the tips and tricks that will work for you. Let's face it -- you can't spend the rest of your life avoiding the passenger seat or the coffee shop. And anyway, life's too short to spend it in a perpetual state of fear and worry.

"Let us be of good cheer, remembering that the misfortunes hardest to bear are those which never happen." -- James Russell Lowell

For more by Nichola Petts, click here.

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