Although there are not specific causes for panic attacks in adults, teens, or children, like most other emotional symptoms, panic is understood to be the result of a combination of biological vulnerabilities, ways of thinking, and environmental factors like social stressors. According to one theory of panic disorder, the body's normal "alarm system," also described as the body's fight or flight system, the set of mental and physical mechanisms that allows a person to respond to a threat, tends to be triggered when there is no danger. Scientists don't know specifically why this happens or why some people are more susceptible to the problem than others. Panic disorder has been found to run in families, and this may mean that inheritance (genetics) plays a role in determining who will develop the condition. However, many people who have no family history of the disorder develop it. Studies differ as to whether drugs like marijuana or nutritional deficiencies like zinc or magnesium deficiencies may also be risk factors for developing panic disorder.
Panic attacks may also be caused by substances. Discontinuation or marked reduction in the dose of a substance such as a drug (drug withdrawal), for example an antidepressant (antidepressant discontinuation syndrome), can cause a panic attack. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, "the most commonly reported side effects of smoking marijuana are anxiety and panic attacks. Studies report that about 20% to 30% of recreational users experience such problems after smoking marijuana."
No matter what your plan is, having one in place is the most important thing. You can think of your plan as your go-to set of instructions for yourself when you feel a panic attack coming on. One plan might be to take yourself out of your current environment, sit down, and call a friend or family member that can help distract you from your symptoms and help you to calm down. Then you can incorporate the following techniques.
Panic attack symptoms and heart attack symptoms can seem similar because their signs and symptoms can be similar. Most medical professionals, however, can quickly tell the difference between their symptoms as heart attacks have distinct symptoms that aren’t panic attack like. If you are unsure of which is panic attack symptoms and which is heart attack symptoms, seek immediate medical advice. If the doctor believes your symptoms are those of a panic attack, you can feel confident his or her diagnosis is correct. Therefore, there is no need to worry about a heart attack.
Nevertheless, if you are struggling with symptoms of an anxiety disorder it is not uncommon to feel alone and misunderstood. Because the fear that people with an anxiety disorder have is not experienced by others, they may not understand why, for example, being in a crowd of people, not being able to wash your hands after meeting a new person, or driving through the street where you got in a car accident can be really anxiety-provoking for someone with an anxiety disorder. People may comment that "there is no reason to worry about it" or that you "should just let it go".
But flashbacks may occur with other types of anxiety as well. Some research, including a 2006 study in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, suggests that some people with social anxiety have PTSD-like flashbacks of experiences that might not seem obviously traumatic, such as being publicly ridiculed. These people may even avoid reminders of the experience—another symptom reminiscent of PTSD.
As with most behavioral illnesses, the causes of panic attacks are many. Certainly there is evidence that the tendency to have panic attacks can sometimes be inherited. However, there is also evidence that panic may be a learned response and that the attacks can be initiated in otherwise healthy people simply given the right set of circumstances. Research into the causes of panic attacks is ongoing.
Treatment of anxiety focuses on a two-pronged approach for most people, that focuses on using psychotherapy combined with occasional use of anti-anxiety medications on an as-needed basis. Most types of anxiety can be successfully treated with psychotherapy alone — cognitive-behavioral and behavioral techniques have been shown to be very effective. Anti-anxiety medications tend to be fast-acting and have a short-life, meaning they leave a person’s system fairly quickly (compared to other psychiatric medications, which can take weeks or even months to completely leave).
If you’re constantly dogged by worries, you might be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This mental illness is defined as excessive anxiety and worry with symptoms that are present most of the time and persist for more than 6 months. GAD is characterized by feelings such as nervousness, restlessness, fatigue, muscle tension, and difficulty concentrating and sleeping.
Some of these symptoms will most likely be present in a panic attack. The attacks can be so disabling that the person is unable to express to others what is happening to them. A doctor might also note various signs of panic: The person may appear to be very afraid or shaky or be hyperventilating (deep, rapid breathing that causes dizziness). Anxiety attacks that take place while sleeping, also called nocturnal panic attacks, occur less often than do panic attacks during the daytime, but affect a large percentage of people who suffer from daytime panic attacks. Individuals with nocturnal panic attacks tend to have more respiratory symptoms associated with panic and have more symptoms of depression and of other psychiatric disorders compared to people who do not have panic attacks at night. Nocturnal panic attacks tend to result in sufferers waking suddenly from sleep in a state of sudden fright or dread for no known reason. As opposed to people with sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, sufferers of nocturnal panic can have all the other symptoms of a panic attack. Although nocturnal panic attacks usually last no more than 10 minutes, it can take much longer for the person to fully recover from the episode.
Don’t panic. That’s a phrase we hear countless times in a day. We hear it in conversation, on TV, in the movies. We say it to ourselves. Why? Because when we panic– experience an intense sensation of fear or anxiety in response to an actual danger—we are more likely to lose control and react to potentially unsafe even life-threatening events in a frantic or irrational way. Panic inhibits our ability to reason clearly or logically. Think about the explosion of fear, the borderline hysteria you felt the day you momentarily lost sight of your six-year-old in the mall. Or the time your car skidded violently on a rain-soaked road. Even before you registered what was happening, your body released adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones that signal danger. Those hormones cause physical reactions: heart pounding, shallow breathing, sweating and shivering, shaking, and other unpleasant physical sensations.
CBT is a short-term treatment designed to help patients identify inaccurate and negative thinking in situations that cause anxiety like panic attacks. CBT can be used in one-on-one therapy or in a group therapy session with people facing similar problems. CBT primarily focuses on the ongoing problems in a patient's life and helps them develop new ways of processing their feelings, thoughts and behaviors to develop more effective ways of coping with their life. In patients who suffer from PTSD, CBT can take on a trauma-focused approach, where the goal is to process and reframe the traumatic experience that lead to the symptoms. On average, the length of treatment is around 10-15 weekly one-hour sessions depending on the type and severity of symptoms.
Now as you feel slightly calmer, you need to identify and face the roots of the anxiety attack. The truth is – there’s always a trigger for it. Even if it’s not obvious, it’s always there. Panic attacks can happen as a response to a stressful or traumatic issue that happened months ago. Try digging into your mind and thinking of the exact cue that might have caused it. Remember, an anxiety attack is just a host of physical reactions. No matter how real it feels, the danger is usually non-existent.
For example, once you notice you are scaring yourself with anxious thinking, you can change your thinking to calming thoughts, which will stop stress responses and their physiological, psychological, and emotional effects. As you calm yourself down, your body will follow by stopping the flow of stress hormones. As stress hormones are used up or expelled, the sensations, symptoms, and feelings of panic will subside…in time.
Although anxiety is often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as a racing heart or knots in your stomach, what differentiates a panic attack from other anxiety symptoms is the intensity and duration of the symptoms. Panic attacks typically reach their peak level of intensity in 10 minutes or less and then begin to subside. Due to the intensity of the symptoms and their tendency to mimic those of heart disease, thyroid problems, breathing disorders, and other illnesses, people with panic disorder often make many visits to emergency rooms or doctors' offices, convinced they have a life-threatening issue.
In the central nervous system (CNS), the major mediators of the symptoms of anxiety disorders appear to be norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Other neurotransmitters and peptides, such as corticotropin-releasing factor, may be involved. Peripherally, the autonomic nervous system, especially the sympathetic nervous system, mediates many of the symptoms. Increased flow in the right parahippocampal region and reduced serotonin type 1A receptor binding in the anterior and posterior cingulate and raphe of patients are the diagnostic factors for prevalence of anxiety disorder.
Since anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions rather than a single disorder, they can look very different from person to person. One individual may suffer from intense anxiety attacks that strike without warning, while another gets panicky at the thought of mingling at a party. Someone else may struggle with a disabling fear of driving, or uncontrollable, intrusive thoughts. Yet another may live in a constant state of tension, worrying about anything and everything. But despite their different forms, all anxiety disorders illicit an intense fear or anxiety out of proportion to the situation at hand.
Other research suggests that social structures that contribute to inequality, such as lower wages, may play a part. In a study published in January 2016 in the journal Social Science and Medicine, Columbia epidemiologists reviewed data on wages and mood disorders, and noted that, at least in their data set, when a woman's pay rose higher than a man's, the odds of her having both generalized anxiety disorder and major depression decreased. (10)
^ Leicht, Gregor; Mulert, Christoph; Eser, Daniela; Sämann, Philipp G.; Ertl, Matthias; Laenger, Anna; Karch, Susanne; Pogarell, Oliver; Meindl, Thomas; Czisch, Michael; Rupprecht, Rainer (2013). "Benzodiazepines Counteract Rostral Anterior Cingulate Cortex Activation Induced by Cholecystokinin-Tetrapeptide in Humans". Biological Psychiatry. 73 (4): 337–44. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.09.004. PMID 23059050.
^ Anxiety: management of anxiety (panic disorder, with or without agoraphobia, and generalised anxiety disorder) in adults in primary, secondary and community care. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Clinical Guideline 22. Issue date: April 2007 "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 August 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-21. ISBN 1-84629-400-2
Antidepressants are used to treat depression, but they can also be helpful for treating anxiety disorders. They may help improve the way your brain uses certain chemicals that control mood or stress. You may need to try several different antidepressant medicines before finding the one that improves your symptoms and has manageable side effects. A medication that has helped you or a close family member in the past will often be considered.