Panic attacks - and panic disorder - are a debilitating mental health issue. During a panic attack, it can feel as though you're about to die, and the experience can be so emotionally draining that it causes you ample amounts of fear and anxiety that can drastically affect your day to day life.
Yet what is perhaps most interesting about panic attacks is that they can occur out of nowhere - with no previous signs of anxiety, and no traumatic event triggering your symptoms. So what triggers panic attacks, and are there people more likely to get panic disorder? In this article, we'll discuss what are widely recognize as the causes of panic attacks, along with a few other theories about why some people may be more prone to panic than others.
What Sensations Are You Noticing?
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Panic Attack Causes
A study among identical and fraternal twins completed by the Anxiety Disorders Clinical and Research Unit at the University of Milan showed that 57% and 43% (respectively) of those with panic attacks also had siblings with panic attacks. Another study showed that as much as 40% of the risk for panic disorder is genetic based.
Now, it should be noted that it's unlikely that "just" a gene causes panic attacks. What's more likely is that a gene causes someone to be more prone to other causes of panic attacks, such as hypersensitivity (more on that later). Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that genetics does play a role in your likelihood of developing panic disorder.
It's not common for those with a mental health disorder to take the disorder as a compliment. But with panic attacks, many experts believe that intelligence may play a role. Panic attacks are more common in those that "live inside their head," which may also exacerbate symptoms as the mind appears to spin out of control. It's possible that those with a higher IQ have a tendency to focus more internally, increasing their awareness of their physical and emotional sensations and setting into motion panic disorder.
Hyper-sensitivity is a greater overall awareness of your body. Everybody experiences aches, pains, and increased heart rates every day. Those without panic disorder may not notice, and if they do, they rarely attribute it to something potentially dangerous. Those with panic disorder, however, are over-sensitive to these sensations. They not only notice every one - they also experience this surge of adrenaline and anxiety when they do. Some believe that panic attacks create hypersensitivity, while others theorize that hypersensitivity comes first.
Stress may also be a trigger for panic attacks - although interestingly, not everyone that has a panic attack is necessarily going through signs of stress. However, those that are experiencing severe stress may be more prone to that first attack, especially. It's not clear how stress causes panic attacks, but it likely has something to do with the negative thinking associated with those under tension. Stress may also increase the likelihood of follow up attacks, although much of that stress may be caused by concern over the attacks themselves.
Misfiring Fight/Flight Response
Most forms of anxiety have some relationship with the fight or flight response. In addition, those with other forms of anxiety may also be more prone to panic attacks. It's possible that those with panic attacks have too much or too little of a neurotransmitter, or too easy a trigger for adrenaline, and this creates an environment more prone to panic.
Health anxiety can also be a factor in panic attacks. It's possible that health anxiety causes the first attack, because the first time anyone suffers from a panic attack they often worry that something is wrong with their health. More common, however, is that panic attacks themselves create health anxiety, and that health anxiety contributes to more panic attacks and panic disorder.
In rare cases, panic attacks may be caused by medical conditions or drugs. It's not very common, but thyroid conditions that alter thyroid hormones, as well as some rare diseases like Lyme disease are known to increase your risk for panic attacks. Furthermore, there are some drugs that may cause panic attacks either while on the drug or during withdrawal.
Causes and Cures for Panic Attacks
What's interesting about panic attacks is that the causes are not necessarily important. While anything that contributes to panic attacks in your life may be worth deciphering, the panic attacks themselves can be managed or cured with the right anxiety reduction strategies - even if your panic disorder is genetic.
In order to cure those panic attacks, however, it's important to look at the symptoms of panic attacks and how they affect you. Only then can you have a treatment designed to combat those symptoms.
Take my 7 minute anxiety test now in order to find those symptoms. You'll find a comprehensive list of symptoms, and you'll be able to select what you suffer from and get a recommended treatment. Click here to start the test.
Anthony JC, Tien AY, Petronis KR. Epidemiologic evidence on cocaine use and panic attacks. Am J Epidemiol 1989;129:543-9.
Richard E. Carr, Panic disorder and asthma: Causes, effects and research implications, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Volume 44, Issue 1, January 1998, Pages 43-52, ISSN 0022-3999, 10.1016/S0022-3999(97)00137-2.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.