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What Can Cause A Panic Attack?

Apr 30, 2008
No one knows for certain what causes panic attacks to occur, however a number of factors have been identified by researchers. These factors include genetics, physical illness and/or taking medications that affect the part of the brain that handles fear, major life stresses, and psychological disorders.

Panic attacks are the body's biological alarm that allows people to appropriately and quickly respond to an immediate threat to their health or their life. It's a survival mechanism that is deeply programmed into our psyche. Unfortunately some people are susceptible to this mechanism being triggered unnecessarily when there's no imminent danger.

** Genetics **

Panic attacks are the most common psychiatric illness in the U.S. Panic attacks are twice as common in women as in men. Research has found that panic disorder appears to run in families, indicating that genetics may play a very strong part in a person's risk of developing panic disorder.

** Stress **

The most common precursor to a panic attack is when life stress levels have risen dramatically in a person's life. This may be an illness in the family, a job change or job loss, or any other major change that creates an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty and anxiety in a person's life. It is known that people who have tendencies to take on excessive responsibility tend to suffer most often from panic attacks.

Another cause of panic disorder is also an underlying psychological condition called PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Studies have shown that people who suffer from PTSD exhibit a far higher rate of panic disorder than the rest of the population. While the causes of panic disorder are unknown, this correlation seems to indicate that stress plays a tremendous part in the triggering of a panic attack.

** Physical Illness and Medication **

Many times, the initial panic attack a person experiences may not be related to stress at all. Sometimes the attack is purely biological. Anyone who suffers from an illness that induces symptoms similar to panic or anxiety can trigger a panic attack. This is even more likely when medications are being taken that has side effects that might affect body or brain chemistry which might induce feelings of fear, anxiety or panic. Once those feelings are triggered, if they can not be managed properly, and the feelings and thoughts can very easily snowball into a full-blown panic attack.

One example is hypoglycemia - a condition where insulin receptors in the brain malfunction, which alters the production of glucose into energy for the brain. This lack of energy causes the brain to signal the adrenal glands for more adrenaline for energy.

While the adrenaline is a survival tool that the body uses to prevent brain starvation, an unfortunate side-effect is that adrenaline will also likely trigger a panic attack.

** Hyperventilation **

While hyperventilation is a panic attack symptom, it can also be a cause. It stems from the body having too much oxygen. In order to use oxygen absorbed into your blood, your body needs a certain level of carbon dioxide. When people don't breathe properly, or they breathe shallower due to nervousness or highly stressful situations, they do not allow the body to retain enough carbon dioxide, and as result, their body can not extract needed oxygen from the bloodstream.

Improper breathing, especially during difficult or stressful times, can contribute greatly to the onset of a panic attack unless breathing is slowed and relaxation techniques are practiced.
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