Causes of Panic attacks


The causes of panic attacks are not fully known. Panic disorder is twice as prevalent in women as it is in men. Some theories propose that hormones are more responsible for this greater number, some that women seek help more often so the numbers are skewed. We don't know enough about the causes of panic to know the reason for this discrepancy. 

Genetics and Biology

There is no evidence that a specific gene causes panic attacks Genetics will determine the color of your eyes with certainty, but panic does not work the same way.

Currently we believe that a vulnerability to panic can be inherited, and that if you engage in certain behaviors ( for example, avoidance) that vulnerability is exploited.

Many people with panic have appear to have a genetic predisposition to it.

5- 8 percent of the population has panic disorder, while 15-20 percent of first-degree relatives may develop panic disorder. If you have panic disorder, it is very likely you have a relative who does too.

First-degree relatives of people with panic disorder are five times more likely to have the condition than first-degree relatives of controls.

Researchers have caused panic attacks in labs by giving people:

  • infusions of sodium lactate (the same compound muscles release during strenuous exercise),
  • high concentrations of inhaled carbon dioxide,
  • and other compounds that affect brain chemicals.

The search is constant to learn more and more about the biology of panic

Neurotransmitters, the brain  and panic disorder.

Studies continue to suggest that these play a role in panic, and research focuses on how drugs impact them. .Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), serotonin, corticotropin-releasing factor, and norepinephrine are the  main ones that are focused on. It may be that the neurochemicals that reduce anxiety are not available to people who have panic disorder.

The amygdala and the limbic system may also function differently  for people who have panic disorder.

Stress and panic

Stress influences the likelihood of the onset of panic disorder. If you are stressed, you are more likely to feel threatened, have reduced coping skills, and be prone to fear.

When under stress, you are less likely to have intentional responses to anxiety. Stress makes it more likely you will to default to your fight or flight reflexes.

Panic has its origins in fight or flight, so there is a strong connection between stress and panic.

Unlike some other conditions influenced by stress ( for example, depression), panic attacks are more likely to continue even without stress. Why? Because the way you think and act about your panic makes it bigger and stronger. Also, each time you respond to something in a certain way, you lay down the biological tracks and pathways for that behavior to occur again. 

Fear Response to your Body

Remember that changing your thoughts feelings and behaviors can help you with anxiety and depression? Panic is the same. If you change the way you think, feel, and act about your panic, you get better. 

Reacting with Fear

Many people who have panic attacks express fear of the physical symptoms they experience. For example, people are fearful that they will faint, throw up, have a heart attack, or otherwise be out of control and go crazy. These beliefs become a part of the panic chain, and increase the likelihood that you will have panic in the future. A person who has had a mild panic attack who does not respond in this manner with the same thoughts, may never go on to develop panic disorder.

Moving around

People also will frequently report moving around because of an inability to bear panic attacks. Guess what? That makes it much worse. When you move around you are revving up your body in a way that will exacerbate your panic.

Your physical symptoms can't hurt you as you will learn in these pages. It's the way you think about and react to your physical symptoms that makes you sicker. Panic attacks are a physiological reaction to fear when there is no real threat present. Understanding that can help you to react to your symptoms in a way that does not exacerbate the panic.

Learn about panic:

 Medical Conditions

Medical conditions can cause panic attacks and panic disorder, Panic has a strong physiological component in that a physical sensation can often trigger it. For this reason, certain medical conditions can exacerbate the likelihood that you will have panic disorder.

Here are some medical conditions that can cause panic attacks:

Other causes and contributors to panic disorder

  • Sex
  • Extreme temperature
  • Exercise
  • Anger
  • Sleep
  • Are all of these really causes of panic disorder?

    Yes..........and no. These kinds of situations can mimic the physiological sensations that you previously experienced during panic attacks. What people tend to do is avoid these things once they make the association. Remember avoidance is not good. It always serves to perpetuate and reinforce anxiety. Always!! In fact, treatment for panic may consist of exposing clients to these things and tolerating the physical symptoms. Which, remember, cannot hurt you!!

    You can learn about CBT for panic disorder here.

  • From Treatments That Work: Mastery of your Anxiety and Panic Workbook. David Barlow and Michelle Craske.Oxford University Press
  • Panic: worry in the extreme. Harv Womens Health Watch. 2000 Aug;7(12):4-5. PMID: 10927661.

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Medical information obtained from this website is not intended as a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you have a problem, you should consult a healthcare provider.