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Panic Attack Triggers-Exercise

by Dr. Blumberg on March 15, 2011

Can Running up a flight of stairs cause a panic attack?

Are You a Catastrophic Thinker?

Panic attack victims are catastrophic thinkers.  They think the worst! When panic attack symptoms hit you for no apparent reason, the catastrophic thinker misinterprets normal bodily sensations of adrenaline as a sign of danger. Strong surges of lightheadedness tricks you into thinking you will go down on the spot. Sudden intense heart pounding, “Out of the Blue,” can trick you into thinking “My heart is going to stop!” Rubbery legs and “jelly legs” can fool you into believing, “my legs will give out.”

Out of the Blue panic attack symptoms are terrifying.  When dizziness, heart pounding and shortness of breath hit for no apparent reason, we ask “Why am I feeling this way? Here is the catastrophic false answer. Head pressure means brain tumor. Shortness of breath will lead to suffocation. A lump in the throat means “Throat will close up.”

Panic attacks and Body Sensitization

After that first Emergency Room Panic Attack, you become sensitized to normal physical sensations.  You are on guard, overly tuned into your body, watching for signs or symptoms of the next attack. In this sensitized state, you are more aware of your body.  You bend over and get up quickly and the normal feeling of being temporarily off-balance sets off catastrophic thinking and you fear you will collapse  in public. After you drink a cup of caffeine coffee, you feel the rush of caffeine adrenaline and heart racing that used to be a sign of exhilaration. But, now, you think, “I am having a “Caffeine reaction!” Caffeine, rather than a wake-up call, becomes a death sentence.

The Panic Experiment-Exercised Induced Panic

Running up a flight of stairs always increased your heart rate and left you breathless. But in your sensitized state, the symptoms associated with exercise feel very scary. Now, after running up a flight of stairs you view the exercise induced rapid heart beating and shallow breathing as a sign “I am over doing it. I put too much stress on my heart!” The heart racing that arose out of exercise is now fueled by your catastrophic misinterpretation “Too much stress on my heart.” As your heart races faster, you are more convinced that “Something is wrong with my heart!” This vicious mind-body cycle leads to an Emergency Room visit to discover you have healthy heart.

Putting Panic Attack Symptoms Back Into the Normal Context Where They Belong

How did you react to running up a flight of stairs before that first Emergency Room Panic Attack? The exercised induced heart racing and shallow breathing went unnoticed and blended into the exercise experience. The increased heart rate and shallow breathing was part of a normal work out. These symptoms were associated with burning calories, strengthening muscle tone, and getting into good physical shape. Exercise created a feeling of exhilaration.

Exercise; Terror or Exhilaration

The Choice is Yours

Option One: Running up a flight of stairs triggers accelerated heart rate and shallow breathing.  If you misinterpret the exercise induced physical symptoms as a sign of a heart problem, you set off the false alarm to the brain and trick your brain into thinking you are facing a life-threatening emergency. The vicious cycle will lead to terror.

Option Two: Running up a flight of stairs triggers accelerated heart rate and shallow breathing. If you view the exercise related symptoms as a normal part of a good work out, the heart racing and shallow breathing blend into the exercise experience, unnoticed. Exercise becomes a positive experience associated with burning off calories and promoting your physical and psychological well being.

It is not the exercise symptoms of heart racing and shallow breathing that creates panic.  How you interpret your physical symptoms determine whether you experience terror or exhilaration.


The ideas in this blog are developed from Dr. Blumberg’s panicLINK Program.  PanicLINK is a comprehensive, twelve session, four phase, multi-media educational program on panic disorder. The material in this Blog and the panicLINK Program are copyright protected by Out of the Blue Network, LLC. No permission is granted to reproduce this blog for commercial purposes. For more information about the panicLINK Program, connect at

* This educational information should always be used in consultation with your doctor to confirm a diagnosis and review available treatments for panic disorder.









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