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What Causes Panic Attack?

Reading Time: 4 Minutes

Your heart is pounding out of your chest, you cannot breathe, the world is closing in on you, your head is spinning, your hands are trembling, you are sweating, and you feel as though you may die. You are most likely experiencing a panic attack, and these symptoms will last for an average of ten minutes. Even though you are in no real danger, you feel your life is at risk, and often these episodes of extreme fear may happen without warning, while other times, specific triggers can provoke these panic attacks. Common triggers include spiders, closed spaces, heights, thunderstorms, snakes, or flying in an airplane.

Defining panic disorder

Panic attacks mimic life-threatening situations where the individual feels they are dying. Although the individual experiencing a panic attack feels like they are dying, they most likely are not in actual life-threatening situations, but the brain and body believe they are.  As a result, their flight or fight response will set in. Signs and symptoms will peak within 10 minutes of onset. Panic disorder, classified under anxiety disorders in the DSM-V is diagnosed when an individual experiences recurrent panic attacks and at least one of the following:  A recurrent and obvious fear of having panic attacks in the future, or a change in behavior designed to avoid the attacks.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Palpitations
  • Trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feelings of choking
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Chills or heat sensations
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Being detached from oneself
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of dying

Risk factors for panic attack

  • Genetics: Genetics play a significant role in the underlying development of panic attacks. Individuals with parents or siblings having a history of any anxiety disorder, including panic attacks, are more likely to experience panic attacks or panic disorder. Even if panic disorder runs in the family, there usually must be environmental stressors that trigger these attacks. On the contrary, healthy environmental protective factors could prevent the development of panic attacks even if the individual is at risk because of positive family history.
  • Temperament:Some temperaments are more prone to stress or negative emotions than others. For example, some people are naturally carefree and can allow stress to roll off their shoulders. In contrast, others harvest fear and stress and sometimes cannot deal with negative triggers that can elicit panic attacks.
  • Major stress:Stressful events such as divorce, financial hardship, past abuse, trauma, or loneliness are negative, stressful environmental triggers that can lead to panic attacks, especially if they are genetically prone to panic attacks.
  • Trauma:Past trauma, whether it is surviving a natural disaster such as a fire or an earthquake, experiencing physical or sexual abuse, staying in a refugee camp or prison, or being the witness of a violent attack, are all traumatic events that can trigger panic attacks.

Other risk factors include the following:

  • Death or loss of a loved one
  • Substance abuse
  • Abuse

Factors that protect against panic attack

  • Adopt healthy eating patterns: A balanced diet full of fruits of vegetables combined with daily exercise can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety and prevent panic attacks
  • Limit caffeine and stimulants: Coffee, tea, tobacco, chocolate, and diet pills usually contain caffeine, which can induce anxiety and panic attacks. Limiting yourself to one cup of coffee or avoiding caffeine altogether can help prevent the onset of panic attacks.
  • Strong social support system: Individuals with a strong support system, high self-esteem, and a healthy life/work balance are less prone to developing panic attacks, even if they are genetically predisposed. These are protective social factors for panic attacks.

Whether an individual is prone to panic attacks or has developed panic attacks that are not linked to any known cause, seeking professional mental health treatment is vital to treat the panic attacks and work through any underlying triggers. Psychotherapy is the first-line treatment approach, and medication can also be added, depending on the severity and frequency of the panic attacks.

Co-occurring disorders associated with panic disorder

Treatment for panic disorders

Panic attacks and panic disorders can be treated with the right combination of behavioral therapy and sometimes with medications. Once you have found the right combination of treatment, you can live life, free of panic disorders. Panic disorders are best treated in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Cognitive behavior therapy used to treat panic disorders is offered at AKUA Mind and Body. Our clinical staff at AKUA Mind and Body works with each client to teach them to recognize underlying triggers associated with their panic attacks. Recognizing triggers is the “cognitive” portion of CBT. The “behavioral” portion of CBT focuses on developing coping skills and techniques to prevent panic attacks and overcome the signs and symptoms if they occur. Antianxiety and antidepressant medications may also be given in addition to behavioral therapy if symptoms are still present. However, anti-anxiety medications are usually prescribed for a very short period and are used with extreme caution because they can be addictive.

If you are experiencing signs and symptoms associated with panic disorder, please reach out to a member of our treatment team at AKUA Mind and Body to help you receive the best care you deserve.

You may also have an undiagnosed co-occurring mental health or substance use disorder, or you may have underlying past trauma that has not yet been identified. Therefore seeking treatment from a mental health professional who is trained in diagnosing and treating co-occurring disorders may be the most appropriate course of action.

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