What are the Causes of Panic Attacks?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Panic attacks sometimes lead to hyperventilation, which is sometimes treated by breathing into a paper bag.
Panic attacks sometimes lead to hyperventilation, which is sometimes treated by breathing into a paper bag.

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.

Panic attacks can often be stress-related.
Panic attacks can often be 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.

The cause of panic attacks could be low levels of serotonin.
The cause of panic attacks could be low levels of serotonin.

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.

Panic attacks are sudden, debilitating bouts of intense fear.
Panic attacks are sudden, debilitating bouts of intense fear.

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.

Some panic attacks may occur for seemingly no reason at all.
Some panic attacks may occur for seemingly no reason at all.

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.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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    • Panic attacks sometimes lead to hyperventilation, which is sometimes treated by breathing into a paper bag.
      By: InfinityPhoto
      Panic attacks sometimes lead to hyperventilation, which is sometimes treated by breathing into a paper bag.
    • Panic attacks can often be stress-related.
      By: David Stuart
      Panic attacks can often be stress-related.
    • The cause of panic attacks could be low levels of serotonin.
      By: snyggg.de
      The cause of panic attacks could be low levels of serotonin.
    • Panic attacks are sudden, debilitating bouts of intense fear.
      By: kmiragaya
      Panic attacks are sudden, debilitating bouts of intense fear.
    • Some panic attacks may occur for seemingly no reason at all.
      By: blanche
      Some panic attacks may occur for seemingly no reason at all.