What Causes Panic Attacks


by Cathy Neville, LPC, and Aisha Simmons, on June 10, 2014

Determining Why Fear is Blindsiding You

Here it comes…

The breath in your chest becomes thin and shallow.

The thoughts in your mind start to stutter.

You’re ready to fight. You’re ready to run.

You hate feeling so out of control.

But, moments later, there it goes.

The knock of your heart returns to normal.

The swirling panic fades away.

All that’s left is the nagging worry that fear will strike again.

Why You?

What is happening to you?

What is behind the fear that comes out of nowhere and paralyzes you?

Many scientists and therapists believe that panic attacks are probably the result of surplus amounts of the “fight or flight” hormone, adrenaline, in the body. That excess adrenaline can inspire extreme fear, unrelated to your current circumstances.

The frequency and intensity of your experience will likely depend on whether you are predisposed to anxiety or are managing a variety of the following stressors, situations, or conditions that could be contributing to your fear:

Are Your Alarm Bells Biological?

  • Panic Due to Genetic Tendency or Brain Chemistry

Heredity. You may be genetically predisposed to panic attacks. Research shows that panic attacks and panic disorders often run in families, passed from parents to children.
Brain Function. There is some evidence that panic attacks are the result of neurological oversensitivity to fear, triggering an extreme response. Researchers also note that some attack sufferers have a reduced supply of the neurotransmitters that serve to calm the brain.

Is Your Fear Physical?

  • Panic as a Symptom of Medical Matters

Panic attacks often accompany the following medical conditions:
– Mitral valve prolapse (a minor problem affecting closure one of the heart’s valves)
– Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland)
– Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)

Could Your Unease be Environmental?

  • Panic caused by External Circumstances

Traumatic Events. The sudden loss of a relationship or involvement in an accident or tragic event can leave you scarred by the unexpectedness of the event and prone to irrational bouts of fear and disquiet. You may even become afraid of the fear itself, unintentionally increasing the likelihood of another attack.
History of Abuse. If you lived with the threat of physical or sexual abuse as child, survived the anguish of domestic violence, or even dealt with the pain of chronic bullying; the stress of being victimized or constantly worrying about your safety can trigger a panic response well after the source of the threat has gone.
Major Life Transitions. New job? Divorce? A baby on the way? Change is stressful. Venturing into the unknown is filled with potential complications that might keep your mind and body from completely relaxing or settling down. A panic attack may result from an unsustainable state of tension or nervousness.
Generalized Stress: Continually shouldering financial worries, family responsibilities, and work or school troubles may prove to be overwhelming stressors. Attempts to suppress or ignore them may eventually erupt in sudden, unanticipated panic.

Might your Fright be Pharmacological?

  • Panic Induced by Medication or Stimulants

Medicines: Carefully review your medications. Various asthma medicines, steroids, ADHD treatments, or antibiotics list panic attacks as a side effect.
Stimulant use: Amphetamines, caffeine, diet pills, or coffee could chemically induce a panic attack or exacerbate potential attacks in a person prone to anxiety.
Substance withdrawal: Prescribed or not, weaning yourself off medication, drugs, or alcohol may trigger panic attacks as the sedating effects of the substance diminishes.

No one likes to be blindsided.

Working with a therapist can help you determine where your panic attacks originate. Your therapist can work with you to find solutions that will help you conquer the fear.

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