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An Emotional Trigger is Generally Misdiagnosed as Panic Attacks Rather than PTSD

Updated on August 25, 2019
Dr Bill Tollefson profile image

My passion is to inspire and coach people to achieve what they want to get out of life.

Empower Yourself By Changing Your Mindset


Mindset is the result of your perception

Do you experience what you think (or because of what you have been told) is a panic attack? Are you a survivor of abuse, bullying, catastrophic, combat, domestic violence, harassment, rape, or traumatic situations in your life? If you have, you are probably feeling some degree of Post-traumatic Stress symptoms from your experience. Then knowingly or unknowingly, you’re carrying buried memory or known as dissociative memory.

Many times a panic attack is not a panic attack because it is the result of being triggered by a past abusive or traumatic experience. After studying the two physiological reactions, they both produce very similar symptoms, emotionally, mentally and physically. It appears that the only difference between a panic attack reaction and being triggered by a flashback is perception. How a person is evaluated or medicated (or not) depends on how the person reports his or her symptoms. Unfortunately, panic attacks have become a catch-all diagnosis and very overused.

Being Emotional Triggered Due to PTSD is many Times Mistaken for Panic Attacks

At some point in time, even years later, after experiencing an abusive or traumatic situation, portions (flashbacks) or complete episodes (full memory) will get triggered whether you like them to or not. They will surface out of dissociated storage, through the subconscious mind and begin to replay in your conscious mind without your awareness. All you will feel is the emotional, mental, and physical reactions. Such shared experiences are reported to helping professionals by survivors, and the experiences are misdiagnosed as a panic attack.

After close investigation of both panic attacks symptoms and symptoms of being triggered, there are not many differences. Notice when you are experiencing a sudden onset of emotional, mental and physical reactions and that they seem to come out of nowhere or for no reason.

How do you know which is an emotional triggering reaction and which is a panic attack? Unfortunately, many times you only know after the fact. You will know when taking your prescribed medication for panic attacks, they don't work, and nothing happens. No relief at all is experienced.

What is an Emotional Trigger?

By definition, a trigger is a sensory stimulus from the outside, such as a sensation, a visual cue, a sound, a smell, a location or a texter which internally causes a surfacing of a recollection from past painful experiences. The outside stimuli produce a connection with your mind which stimulates a memory or portion of memory (flashback) to surface. The surfacing of memory or flashback may have been held in the subconscious in a dissociated memory storage area in the brain.

A trigger can be positive or negative. Triggers can be connected to a good or positive experience as well as a bad, negative or life-threatening experience.

How many times have you been able to recall an event by simply smelling something familiar or just from having a feeling (good or bad)? Clinical studies have found that emotion or smell is said to be "the biggest triggers of memory, normal or PTSD."

10 (Ten) Types of Triggers

The nine types of common triggers are:

  • Anniversary trigger
  • Auditory trigger
  • Date trigger
  • Emotional trigger
  • Environmental trigger
  • Mental trigger
  • Physical trigger
  • Relationship trigger
  • Visual trigger
  • Verbal trigger

What do you experience when you are triggered?

  • Your heart feels like it is going to beat out of your chest
  • Your heart rate becomes rapid
  • Sweating in every part of your body
  • Cold hands and feet but hot body core
  • Unusual smells for no reason
  • Tightening of your throat
  • Dry mouth and unable to say anything
  • Physically frozen and unable to do anything
  • A decrease in your visual field
  • Quick onset of fear or terror for no apparent reason
  • Emotional numbness
  • Can’t think clearly or concentrate
  • Rapid onset of intense confusion
  • Episodes of dissociating
  • Very anxious
  • Hypervigilant
  • Hyper-aware
  • Hypersensitive
  • Quick onset of irritability

If you are honest with yourself and review all the triggers mentioned above, you will see that you are indeed experiencing the symptoms of a subconsciously triggered flashback rather than a panic attack.

Physical Symptoms of Panic Attack

Physical shaking

Dry mouth



increasing blood pressure

Increased heart rate

Stomach pain



Increased body temperature

Difficulty breathing - pressure or shallow breathing

What can I do?

What can I do, you ask?

Check yourself, slow down and breathe deeply. Do your best not to react to fear by instantly dissociating.

After breathing, focus on the moment and stay in the present for 10 minutes to see if you are having is an emotional flashback or an actual panic attack. Learn to use visual cues, deep breathing, grounding methods, or meditation to stay mindful and in the moment.

Moderate your fear by not attempting to predict or project what might happen next.

Do not immediately take anti-anxiety (anti-anxiety) medication. Instead, develop a skill or a cue which will keep you in the moment. If the reactions mentioned above are a triggered flashback, then in 5 to 10 minutes, the results should dissipate.

Then stop, reflect and determine whether you are having a flashback or a panic attack. If the reactions do not dissipate, then utilize your anti-panic medication for relief.

Connect to Your Inner Power

Overall, recognition and self-determination enhance your inner power. If you face your demons head-on, then there is a good chance your triggers will disappear.

A traumatic memory can be rendered harmless and the emotional charge connected to the triggers can be reduced to an insignificant level. Face what you fear and you will become stronger.

It is possible to overcome your bad memories, process them and live trigger free.

How to Heal Flashbacks

© 2015 Bill Tollefson


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    • Dr Bill Tollefson profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Tollefson 

      6 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Dear Nadine May,

      Thank you for your comment. For so many people they do not understand that they are being emotionally trigger on unresolved issues in their past by situations in the present or what is about to show up in their future rather than experiencing a panic attack.

      Thanks for taking time to read.

      Blessings, Dr Bill

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 

      6 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Thanks for your excellent hub. I seem to deal with a panic attack through having a nightmare. It might have been triggered my a movie, or something I read somewhere, who knows. For some reasons my soul must then have a need to clear out what I call disinformation. What I can do it change my dream while awaken into a lucid dream stage. Or I wake up and go and read.

    • Dr Bill Tollefson profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Tollefson 

      6 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Dear Matty2014

      Thank you for your comment. Hope you follow me and read more of my HUBS.

      On simple terms -

      The experience of abuse or trauma is overwhelming emotional pain that threatens the Soul and avoids all rationalization.

      The measure is when you recollect the incident it hurts.

    • Matty2014 profile image


      6 years ago

      I would be interesting to know what is abusive or traumatise experience?

      I am not asking about the definition, but the abusive or traumatise experience itself. I don't really know how ask this question, but something like how to identify it, and how to measure it, and else


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