Panic attacks can come out of the blue (uncued), or they can be triggered by specific situations or people (cued). Both have similar symptoms that can leave sufferers feeling like they’ve lost control, but they still have differentiating characteristics. Understanding the difference between an uncued and cued panic attack is important if you or a loved one is suffering from panic disorder.
Panic attacks can appear spontaneously, or you may find yourself in a certain situation that triggers a panic attack. It’s important to understand the differences between a cued and uncued panic attack to raise awareness and identify which one you’re experiencing. Having a deeper understanding will allow you to get the help you need to overcome panic disorder.
Cued vs Uncued Panic Attacks
The idea of an uncued panic attack is easy for most people to understand, but what about cued attacks?
A cued panic attack develops in response to a specific feared situation or place. For example, if you experienced a traumatic event while you were in a park, you may have a cued panic attack whenever you’re at or near a park.
If you have a fear of something specific, like spiders, crowds, or flying, then you may experience a cued panic attack.
Cued panic attacks can be predisposed or situationally cued, like the examples above.
Predisposed panic attacks are slightly different in that they may not necessarily happen as soon as you’re exposed to the trigger.
The fear or phobia never goes away, but you may experience a panic attack before or after the triggering event.
For example, let’s say that being in large crowds gives you anxiety. You’ve planned a trip to a big city for an event, and you know that the streets and venue will be crowded. You may have a panic attack the night before the trip because you’re anticipating your fear, or you may have an attack right after the event is over.
In this case, you know what your trigger is, but you may not necessarily know when the panic attack will happen.
People who suffer from social anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, or agoraphobia are more likely to experience cued panic attacks.
To fully understand the difference between cued vs uncued panic attacks, you need to know what an uncued attack is and its symptoms.
Exploring Uncued Panic Attacks
If cued panic attacks are triggered by specific situations or places, then you may have already guessed that uncued panic attacks have no real triggers. This type of panic attack, sometimes called an unexpected panic attack, seems to come out of the blue.
If there is a trigger, you can’t identify it – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t there.
You may be relaxing and watching a movie and suddenly experience a panic attack. Some people experience panic attacks while they’re sleeping, out with friends, or while enjoying a meal at their favorite restaurant.
The cause of uncued panic attacks isn’t well understood. It may appear that there is no obvious trigger, but that may not necessarily be the case. Your subconscious mind may pick up on certain environmental cues and elicit the panic response before your conscious self is even aware.
There may be an unconscious connection to something in the environment that was present when you felt fear. For example, it could be something as simple as the smell of a certain perfume or even the lighting in the room.
In other cases, it’s the anxiety itself that causes the attack.
Uncued panic attacks impact at least 2 – 3% of the adult population. These attacks take a person by surprise because they’re often going about their daily life before experiencing the symptoms of an uncued attack.
An attack can occur when the person is in the yard tending to their garden or when they’re lying in bed at night.
You can go from a calm state to one that is filled with anxiety and panic. Why? Researchers are not 100% positive about why people experience unexpected panic attacks. Theories suggest that family history may play a role. If someone in your family has panic disorder, you may also develop them.
Genetics and biological factors may contribute to uncued panic attacks, but there are many cases when there is no known link.
Instead, the person will begin to experience the common symptoms and reactions of a panic attack, including:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Fear that you’re losing control
- Shaking or trembling
- Feeling faint
- Feeling like you’re choking
However, these symptoms are shared among many panic disorder types.
Overlapping Symptoms and Similarities
Cued and uncued panic attacks can have many of the same symptoms, making it difficult for a person or therapist to uncover the root cause of your attack. Each type of attack can cause a person to experience:
- Chest pain
- Hot flashes
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpations
- Other symptoms
Both forms of panic attacks can cause these symptoms. The main differentiating factor among both types of panic is whether they’re cued or uncued.
Interestingly, people with uncued attacks often have difficulty with the diagnosis because they experience an isolated event that never reoccurs. However, there are cases where a person suffers from a single attack and has numerous cued attacks, leading to a diagnosis of panic disorder.
Cued and uncued panic attacks cause very similar symptoms, yet their main causes differ. A cued attack is a result of specific triggers or stressors, such as experiencing extreme fear when a bee flies by you.
You may begin to swear, have an extreme fear of death, and even feel faint because of a bee.
Uncued attacks just happen. Often, there is no rhyme or reason for the attack, and you’ll have no clue as to the trigger or the cause of it.
In both cases, there is treatment available to help you overcome the panic attacks that you’re experiencing by using proven methods. Talk therapy is often the first course of treatment. Talk therapy is when a professional can accurately diagnose your panic attack disorder and begin tailoring a treatment option for you.
A custom treatment plan for your type of panic attack offers you the best chance of recovery.