What are the Causes of Panic Attacks?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 26 December 2018
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Doctors and researchers have identified several causes of panic attacks but they are quick to point out that not all causes are known, and the mechanisms under which panic attacks occur aren’t fully understood. Even without complete knowledge in this area, there are still some things that are viewed as causes of panic attacks. These include stress, certain medications or substances, disorders like panic disorder, and potentially genetics. Some dispute exists on this last cause.

About 5% of the population will at one time or another suffer at least one panic attack. A person who has one may never have another. When only one ever occurs, the cause of panic attacks is usually stress related.

At some point in their lives, many people will face a circumstance so gravely stressful that the body cannot appropriately respond. This could lead to tightness or pain in the chest, hyperventilation (rapid breathing), a sense that the heart is pounding, or all three. Lots of people go to the hospital when these symptoms occur expecting to hear they’ve had a heart attack, when in truth the attack has been panic-oriented.


Sometimes these symptoms occur in conjunction with taking various substances, especially things that speed up the body like amphetamines, or even too much caffeine. It’s occasionally the case that the cause of panic attacks is substance or medicine-related. If a person needs to go to hospital due to one of these attacks, he needs to be truthful with doctors about anything he has taken, even if it was not a legal substance or legally prescribed. Medical conditions like hyperthyroidism may also be one of the causes of panic attacks, and giving doctors all the information so they can look for a cause is important.

Identifying the causes of panic attacks in those who suffer them regularly is a bit more challenging. People with panic or anxiety disorder, and sometimes with depression, may routinely have these attacks. Treatment with medications like selected serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may bring some relief. This would suggest that the cause of panic attacks could be low levels of serotonin, which may provide regulation of stress hormones. Yet not all people respond to SSRIs, and some need tranquilizers to calm panic, suggesting a potentially high level or adrenaline, not adequately controlled by serotonin.

It’s been suggested that people who routinely have panic attacks may have an overly sensitive adrenaline response that is activated even when there is no danger. Genetics can be viewed as one of the causes of panic attacks. Panic issues do tend to run in families, but there are no reliable studies determining whether this is a genetic or learned behavior, especially when passed from parent to child. Panic disorder is typically viewed as having biological basis, which would lean toward the genetic explanation.



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