Your body produces hormones for many useful purposes: they cause you to grow and develop correctly, they regulate your metabolism, and they determine whether or not you are capable of reproduction. However, they can also be partially responsible for panic attacks.
Panic attacks that seem to come out of nowhere can often be traced back to your hormones. You suddenly feel nervous or worried about something, and within 10 minutes your heart is racing, you're hyperventilating and you may feel nauseous, detached from your own body, or even convinced you're about to die. Luckily, the hormonal causes for these feelings can be controlled and regulated to reduce the frequency of panic attacks and hopefully even stop them altogether.
The Hormones Responsible for Panic
To be fair to you hormones, the ones that tell you to panic are usually doing it for a reason. Your body is a complex system that is built to survive, which is why is has mechanisms like the fight or flight response. Hormone imbalances may even be caused by your mental health, leading to a self-sustaining cycle.
However, any hormonal imbalance may result in fight or flight being triggered at the slightest discomfort or concern, resulting in all the reactions your body would need to confront or escape a dangerous situation except that the dangerous situation never occurs. Your lungs overwork themselves trying to capture extra oxygen to send to your heart, and your heart pounds, sending newly oxygen-rich blood to every part of your body. The only problem is, your body doesn't need or use it, which confuses it and causes it to send you distress signals such as dizziness and nausea.
An excess of these types of hormones significantly increases the likelihood of panic attacks in situations where they are not called for:
- Stress Hormones The hormones cortisol and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline, the primary fight of flight hormone) are released when the body experiences stress. Over an extended period of time, the persistent overabundance of these hormones can actually perpetuate the cycle of stress, causing weight loss, sleep disruption, and high blood pressure.
- *Sexual (Steroid) Hormones*An increase in sexual (or steroid) hormones estrogen and testosterone has been linked to periods of increased bodily stress: they are highly active during teenage years for both males and females when the body is developing, and particularly in women during their menstrual cycles, pregnancy and menopause. These are periods of tension and high stress, where hyper-reactivity is common.
- Thyroid Hormones In some (but not all) people, an overproduction of thyroid hormone (also known as hyperthyroidism) results in stress-reactions including an increased heart rate, heavier breathing, weight loss, and excessive sweating.
If you suspect (or know) that your panic attacks are rooted in one of these hormone imbalances, it is important to figure out what factors in your life are causing the imbalance. From there you can look at the options for treating your hormone imbalance.
Common Causes of Hormonal Imbalance
Ironically, the very hormonal imbalances that perpetuate stress and panic attacks are also often caused by stress. This may be the stress caused by your daily life (whether you have an anxiety disorder or are simply under a lot of pressure from life's two primary stress sources: work and relationships), or it may simply be the result of the stage of life you are at (and how high your hormone levels are). However, it is thought to be possible to be genetically predisposed to hyperthyroidism, which can have several different causes. These include:
- Graves' disease - A disease that causes antibodies to attack the thyroid as if it were a foreign substance in the body, resulting in an increased release of the thyroid hormone.
- Plummer's disease This disease results in an enlargement of the thyroid due to the growth of (non-cancerous) lumps or goiters in the glands within it.
- Thyroiditis Sometimes occurring after a pregnancy (but not exclusive to women), thyroiditis is an inflammation of the thyroid (a gland located in your neck) that results in an increase of thyroid hormone production.
Women are more susceptible to hormone-related panic attacks than men. This is because women experience more sexual hormone imbalances than men, due to the extreme bodily changes they undergo throughout their lives, and also due to the fact that they are 10 times more likely than men to develop hyperthyroidism.
Getting Your Hormones Back in Balance
In order to cure sexual hormone imbalance, a doctor may prescribe supplemental doses of the opposite hormone to restore hormonal balance (and don't worry, a little extra testosterone or estrogen can't turn you into the opposite sex or give you characteristics belonging to them: whether you are male or female, you already have both genders of hormone in your body already, you just have more of one than the other. However, it is possible to have too much more of one than the other, which is where the imbalance part comes in).
Though hyperthyroidism caused by Graves' disease is thought to be genetic in nature, there are a few preventative measures you can take to decrease the chances of hyperthyroidism adding to your stress and potentially causing panic attacks.
- Avoid smoking
- Limit consumption of soy products
- Try a gluten-free diet
- Wear a thyroid collar during exposure to radiation (i.e., while being x-rayed)
While hyperthyroidism may not be entirely controllable, most causes of stress are. Balancing your external world can be a crucial part of balancing your internal world, and your external world is something you can influence through your own choices and actions. Here are some tips on how to prevent the stressful situations that can cause hormonal imbalances.
It might be helpful to make a list of the stress-causing factors in your life, from the most stressful to the less stressful factors. From that point, you can deal with them in a more organized manner (and it can be very satisfying to cross them off as you overcome them)! However, in general, you can build stress-reducing habits such as these to put you in a better position to combat the stress factors in your life.
- Exercise As many times as you've heard it before, and as much as the quick fixes of watching TV and playing with your latest app can feel relaxing at the time, exercise is a much better relaxant and helps you with anxiety in the long term, rather than just the short term. When you exercise, endorphins (which are your body's anti-pain or happy chemicals) are released in your brain, resulting in a natural high that improves your mood and gives you extra energy. In addition, it helps your body both look and feel healthier, which eliminates stress-inducing problems like high blood pressure and negative body image.
- Eating Right Similar to getting exercise, eating right will help your body look and feel healthier. Fatty, greasy foods are hard to digest and make the body feel sluggish and slow, while foods high in sugar can make you feel agitated. Eating healthy gives you body less to process, since it minimizes the junk chemicals it needs to filter: good nutrients flow to the parts of you that most need them and make them feel good.
- Meditation Sit in a park, lie in the sun, and let all your worries and thoughts fade from your mind while simply observing the beauty of nature and/or focusing on your breathing. You can do this on your lunch break, while walking the dog (if you have one), or set a time for it on the weekends. This is a great way to recharge yourself, both mentally and physically. Constant stress, as well as resulting in panic attacks, can be emotionally as well as physically debilitating. You greatly reduce your chances of having panic attacks if you give your mind a rest from stress on a regular basis.
- Joining a Club or Group Sometimes stress can come from not having anyone with similar interests to talk to, or feeling isolated and unable to relate to anyone (this is especially true for people experiencing sexual hormonal imbalances, such as teenagers and menopausal women). Fortunately, in today's world, the internet makes it easy to find groups of people going through what you are going through or even just interested in the same things you are. Having someone to talk to, as well as doing an activity that you enjoy routinely, can be great stress relievers.
- Being Creative Feeling like you are not good at anything, directionless, and/or stuck in a rut are all causes of stress (maybe you are unemployed, job hunting, or simply going through a sad or frustrating time). Creativity can be very useful in these situations. Try something you have never tried, or something you are good at but never take the time to do: as long as it's creative, you'll feel a sense of purpose and direction that can provide focus and put a stop to your anxiety. For example, you could draw, paint, write, knit, build a model of something, make a collage, or start a scrapbook.
Hormones (and hormone imbalances) can be hard to handle, and can make your anxiety worse: however, if you eliminate the causes of stress that can trigger hormone imbalances, you will be taking the first step towards taking your seemingly uncontrollable panic attacks into your own hands.