Can PTSD Trigger Panic Attacks?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic attacks are both debilitating mental health conditions that can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life. While they are distinct disorders, there exists a substantial overlap between them, with PTSD often being accompanied by panic attacks. In this guide, we delve deep into the intricate relationship between PTSD and panic attacks, exploring the underlying mechanisms, common symptoms, and effective treatment strategies.

Father and son experiencing dual-diagnosis therapy treatment

PTSD and Panic Attacks

PTSD is a psychiatric condition that can develop after exposure to a traumatic event such as combat, natural disasters, physical assault, or witnessing a traumatic incident. It is characterized by a range of symptoms, including intrusive memories, flashbacks, hypervigilance, avoidance behaviors, and negative changes in mood and cognition. Panic attacks, on the other hand, are sudden episodes of intense fear or discomfort, accompanied by physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling, and shortness of breath.

While PTSD and panic attacks are distinct clinical entities, they often co-occur, leading to a myriad of challenges for individuals struggling with both conditions. Understanding the relationship between PTSD and panic attacks requires a nuanced examination of various contributing factors, including psychological, physiological, and environmental influences.

Psychological Factors

  • Trauma Triggers: Individuals with PTSD may experience intense fear or anxiety when exposed to triggers associated with their traumatic event. These triggers can vary widely and may include specific sights, sounds, smells, or situations reminiscent of the trauma. The anticipation of encountering these triggers can heighten anxiety levels and increase the likelihood of panic attacks.
  • Cognitive Patterns: Maladaptive thought patterns and cognitive distortions are common features of both PTSD and panic attacks. Individuals with PTSD may engage in catastrophic thinking, believing that they are in imminent danger or that catastrophic events are inevitable. These distorted beliefs can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and contribute to the onset of panic attacks.
  • Avoidance Behaviors: Avoidance is a hallmark symptom of PTSD, as individuals may go to great lengths to avoid reminders of their trauma in an effort to cope with distressing emotions. While avoidance may provide temporary relief, it can perpetuate feelings of fear and reinforce the association between trauma triggers and panic attacks.

Physiological Factors

  • Hyperarousal: PTSD is associated with a state of chronic hyperarousal, wherein individuals remain in a heightened state of alertness and physiological arousal. This heightened arousal can manifest as increased heart rate, muscle tension, and hypervigilance, making individuals more susceptible to experiencing panic attacks.
  • Neurobiological Changes: Research suggests that PTSD can lead to alterations in brain chemistry and function, particularly within the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. These neurobiological changes can dysregulate the body’s stress response system, leading to heightened anxiety and an increased vulnerability to panic attacks.
  • Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis Dysregulation: The HPA axis plays a central role in the body’s response to stress, regulating the release of cortisol and other stress hormones. Dysregulation of the HPA axis is commonly observed in individuals with PTSD, contributing to persistent anxiety and hyperarousal, which can precipitate panic attacks.

Environmental Influences

  • Social Support: The presence or absence of social support networks can significantly impact an individual’s experience of PTSD and panic attacks. Strong social support can serve as a protective factor, buffering against the negative effects of trauma and providing a source of comfort during times of distress.
  • Stressful Life Events: Stressful life events, such as job loss, financial difficulties, or relationship problems, can exacerbate symptoms of both PTSD and panic attacks. These stressors can overwhelm coping mechanisms and increase vulnerability to experiencing psychological distress.
  • Substance Use: Substance use and addiction are common co-occurring issues among individuals with PTSD and panic attacks. While substances may initially provide relief from symptoms, they can ultimately exacerbate mental health problems and increase the frequency and severity of panic attacks.

Treatment Approaches for PTSD and Panic Attacks

Effective treatment for individuals with co-occurring PTSD and panic attacks requires a comprehensive and integrated approach that addresses both the underlying trauma and the symptoms of anxiety. Treatment modalities may include:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a highly effective therapeutic approach for both PTSD and panic attacks, focusing on identifying and challenging maladaptive thought patterns and behaviors. Exposure therapy, a specific form of CBT, may be particularly beneficial in helping individuals confront and process traumatic memories and desensitize to trauma triggers.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is a specialized form of therapy that has been shown to be effective in treating PTSD by facilitating the processing and integration of traumatic memories. EMDR may also be helpful in reducing the frequency and severity of panic attacks by addressing underlying trauma.
  • Medication Management: Psychotropic medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) may be prescribed to alleviate symptoms of PTSD and panic attacks. These medications can help regulate mood, reduce anxiety, and stabilize physiological arousal.
  • Mindfulness-Based Interventions: Mindfulness practices, such as meditation and yoga, can be valuable adjunctive treatments for individuals with PTSD and panic attacks. Mindfulness techniques promote relaxation, stress reduction, and emotional regulation, providing individuals with coping skills to manage symptoms effectively.
  • Holistic Therapies: Holistic approaches such as acupuncture, massage therapy, and equine-assisted therapy may complement traditional treatment modalities by addressing the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of healing.

Finding Hope and Healing

Living with PTSD and panic attacks can feel like navigating a minefield of triggers and symptoms, but it’s important to remember that recovery is possible. By understanding the complex relationship between PTSD and panic attacks and seeking appropriate treatment, individuals can regain control of their lives and experience a renewed sense of hope and healing. At 12 South Recovery in Lake Forest, CA, we specialize in providing personalized and evidence-based treatment for individuals struggling with co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders. Our compassionate team of clinicians is dedicated to helping clients address the underlying trauma, develop coping skills, and reclaim their lives from the grip of addiction and mental illness.

Contact Us Today!

If you or a loved one is battling PTSD and panic attacks, don’t suffer in silence. Contact 12 South Recovery today at 866-257-5551 to take the first step toward recovery and embark on a journey toward lasting healing and transformation.


At 12 South Recovery, we aim to help restore balance to every area of life – treating the mind, body and spirit so our clients are able to find lasting recovery from addiction and other co-occurring disorders. Our unique Treatment Programs aim to address both addiction and the underlying causes.

Contact 12 South Recovery at 866-839-6876 today.

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