Panic Disorder: Fake Fears and Triggers

Updated: Jun 10, 2019

When I talk about fake fears, I'm not referring to irrational fears; these fears aren’t fake in the sense that there is no realistic danger, I consider them to be fake because they weren't actually my fears at all; I didn’t own these fears; these weren’t phenomena that I was usually scared of. When I had my panic disorder, I was made to believe that my anxiety/panic was often triggered by specific phobias or specific situations I feared; however, even though this is how it appeared to play out, It wasn't the case.

Take agoraphobia for example, when I lived in Leeds, I was going to my friends’ flat across town for a night out, it was probably a 2-mile journey which cost about a tenner in a taxi. Despite the short distance from my house, it felt like the other side of the world. As soon as I arrived, I wanted to leave, but this was not because I was homesick about the place where I had spent the whole day bored out of mind up until 20 minutes ago; it was because of the fear of the physical symptoms I was experiencing; my heart was pumping out my chest, I felt dizzy, like I was going to feint. This is also why I don't believe exposure therapy wouldn't have helped me.

[If you are certain your anxiety or panic is due to situational fears or specific phobias, please bear with me! Although, I will gladly admit this may not apply to everyone’s experience of panic disorder/anxiety.]

How Did I Develop Fake Fears?

In my opinion, and from much experience, I believe that because I was constantly in such a hyper-sensitised state when suffering from an anxiety/panic disorder, I had become so hyper-aware of everything, including bodily sensations and very unlikely potentially dangerous situations, that I rapidly began to develop fears about everything. I don’t believe it was the fear of the situation or threat itself that set me off, it was the fear of the physical symptoms of anxiety/panic attacks in that particular situation. I think this may be true for many others.

E.g. My temporary fear of flying wasn’t initially the fear of death from crashing (however this developed afterwards as a result), it was the fear of having a panic attack somewhere where I could not escape. If I had a panic attack, I was stuck, in a tiny space with hundreds of people; I couldn’t just get off whenever I wished. This fear of having the physical symptoms on the plane ironically triggered the physical symptoms. Only once the physical symptoms came and I became heightened, did I start having irrational thoughts as well, such as What if that wing snaps off? Why is that man so serious-looking, is he a terrorist? What’s that rattling noise? (Or maybe these thoughts fleeted past before but I certainly didn’t stop for any time to seriously ponder them) This isn’t a specific phobia to flying. I haven’t been scared of flying my whole life, nor did I have a bad experience on a plane which caused me to develop one; in fact, when I was a child, I thought it was exciting and I loved the window seat (only during my anxiety disorder did I perceive seeing 30,000 miles below me as dangerous and terrifying as opposed to cool and exciting. Does this sound like you?

A Short-list of Fake Fears

“Specific phobias”

  • Agoraphobia (Leaving the house or going far away from home was terrifying, going abroad was excruciating, being in an unfamiliar place etc.)

  • Claustrophobia (Small spaces, busy places,

  • Food poisoning (from peanuts which I wasn't even allergic too. Throwing away perfectly cooked chicken)

  • Loud or sudden noises (Anything from cars, motorbikes etc. I felt extremely sensitive to noise, a motorbike going past would make me literally jump off the floor)

  • Flying (The wing snapping off, the flight attendants being terrorists, angry looking passengers being terrorists, the plane being faulty and crashing, the food trolley being too heavy for the plane etc.)

  • Things blowing up (When anything electric or mechanical made a noise e.g. walking past a clicking car in the heat, turning on gas, car engine over-heating, smelling burning when nothing was burning etc.)

  • Terrorism (In incredibly unlikely places and situations)

  • Violence (Every stranger terrified me; people with serious faces, angry-looking people, men in sportswear or with lots of tattoos, people who smoked were all thugs)

“Situational triggers”

  • Being alone (E.g. Being alone in male public toilets and getting beaten up or mugged, looking weird when I'm eating, not being to take my jumper off or put things in the bin, not being able to walk properly or stand properly)

  • Being in a car (E.g. Feeling trapped)

  • Being on a train (not being able to stop and get off when I want)

  • Being in a sauna (Getting trapped inside and dying of dehydration/heat exhaustion)

  • Cinemas (E.g. Roof falling on my head, being in the middle of the row and having a panic attack)

  • Getting my haircut (E.g. Choking to death on the thing they put around my neck, not being able to leave when I want)

  • Concerts/gigs (E.g. Getting swallowed up the crowd and tramped on, terrorist attack, being seriously ill and not being able to get to an exit in time)

  • Crowds/busy places (E.g. Nightclubs, supermarkets, university lecture halls, student union)

  • Baths (I was scared of passing out and drowning in the bath water, dying in the bath, didn't dare lock the door in case it happened and I needed rescuing in time)

[These are the fears that came to my head first, I experienced thousands more.]

How do I Know These Were Fake Fears?

[It’s important to note that at the time, during my anxiety disorders, I didn’t realise they were fake fears and caused by the panic disorder itself, I thought they came from within me, that my super-irrational thoughts caused my severe anxiety and panic attacks; I now know it was actually the other way around; the physical experience of anxiety and panic attacks actually caused the irrational thoughts. It was the chicken before the egg scenario.]

1. The anxiety and panic stayed.

If someone has a specific phobia of something, once the particular perceived threat or situation has ceased, the anxiety should pass, not immediately so but relatively quickly. However, with these so-called specific phobias I experienced during my panic disorder, the anxiety and panic didn't end once the situation finished or the specific stimulus, I assumed I feared, disappeared. My body was in such a state of emergency that it took me a long time to calm down afterwards, sometimes I wouldn’t calm down at all. If it was the specific situation that scared me, I would’ve returned to a state of relative calmness afterwards.

E.g. I went on a skiing holiday with my family and I was incredibly anxious, I was certain that I had become really scared of being so far away from home, like some form of agoraphobia or extreme-homesickness. I couldn’t wait to be back in safe, familiar surroundings. However, when I arrived home nothing changed; the panic didn’t stop. If the fear was agoraphobia, then it would’ve stopped shortly after I got home.

2. The “fears” and the physical symptoms disappeared simultaneously.

Once I overcame the physical symptoms i.e. by overcoming my fear of them and making them disappear completely, all these supposed phobias and triggers I thought I had disappeared simultaneously. This wasn’t due to doing exposure therapy or fighting every specific fear I had until I eventually mastered my thoughts.(although this can work very effectively for other people) It was as simple as, once I got rid of the physical symptoms, I could now think completely rationally and clearly and so these fake fears disappeared.

E.g. I have since travelled by plane several times and haven't had any of those fears I had during my panic disorder, e.g. the wings snapping off. I can also go to the cinema without fearing that the roof will fall on my head, I can be comfortable getting my hair-cut without thinking the tight collar around my neck will choke me to death, and I can be completely comfortable in very busy places, without needing a beer to be so.

[I appreciate flying can be a specific fear for many, even those without an anxiety disorder, but it’s a good example of a fake fear manifesting itself and then disappearing along with my anxiety disorder.]

Types of Fake Fears

Regardless of whether the fear was characteristic of a specific phobia or situational trigger, they appeared to fall into one of the 2 categories below.

Type 1

These fears are ones I had before my panic disorder but at a normal reasonable level, the amount that a mentally-healthy adult might have of spiders or moths. I was slightly scared before, but certainly not to a pathological level, it wouldn't have caused a panic attack where I would fear death or losing my mind, much more likely a "sh** my pants" or “that scared the life out of me” type scenario, and it would last seconds, not minutes or hours. However, when I deteriorated into this highly-sensitised state during my anxiety disorder, these mild fears got blown out of all proportion.

E.g. I have always been a bit of a hypochondriac, whenever I used to get ill in the past, I normally thought I had something worse than I did, but once I visited the doctors, my slight worry would cease completely. However, during my panic disorder, I had full-blown health anxiety. I was worrying about death and deadly illnesses even whilst I was physically healthy, all day, every day. This was all because of the physical symptoms I experienced, not from random thoughts of illness that I couldn’t get out of my head. After I did my DIY-CBT technique and made the physical symptoms go away, the health anxiety went away with it too, as I no longer had physical symptoms left to fear.

Type 2

These fears had simply been completely made up by my panic disorder. I got into such a hyper-sensitized state that it caused me to develop very irrational fears, ones that I'd never experienced before my anxiety disorders developed. The things I then feared were even things I had enjoyed in the past, but then, with the flick of a switch, I was absolutely petrified of them.

E.g. I had always really enjoyed going to the cinema, then during my panic disorder I all of sudden became terrified that the roof would fall on my head, and I was scared of having a panic attack or dying in the middle of a row without being able to escape. I struggled to breathe and swallow every time I went to the cinema, I no longer wanted to go anymore because I was so petrified. Post panic disorder, I can enjoy the cinema again without a worry in the world (without having done exposure therapy or having fought the fear); potentially getting caught for sneaking in some sweets from the pound shop doesn’t even concern me.

I Only Experienced 1 Fear

The Fear of the physical experience of panic attacks (whether I believed them to be panic attacks at the time or not) This in turn caused agoraphobia, fear of panic attacks (panic disorder), fear of losing my mind, fear of death, fear of no escape, fear of no control, fear of someone knowing I was having a panic attack, fear of having panic attacks forever, fear of heart attacks, fear of brain tumors, plus, hundreds of thousands more. These fears were all, I believe, caused by the physical sensations of my anxiety and panic attacks, without the physical symptoms or the fear of them, there was no way I could've had a panic disorder/panic attacks; in other words if I could somehow remove the physical symptoms, I would no longer fear going crazy or dying, it was as simple as that. Once the physical symptoms disappeared, slowly but surely, so did all the other fears too.

If you’re interested in learning about the practical technique I used to overcome the physical symptoms in order to prevent any further panic attacks, see the post titled "DIY-CBT" on the blog page. I also offer peer support for panic attacks or health anxiety via Skype.

P.s I’m sure this isn’t the case for all panic disorders, it would also definitely depend on how it manifested itself in the first place, so if it’s due to past abuse or trauma, what I’ve written may not ring true for you. Thanks.

Check out Panic Peer Support if you would like to try fully recover from panic disorder/health anxiety/physical anxiety

© 2018 by James Bishop             Leeds, England, United Kingdom.

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