Have you ever felt intensely anxious, fearful and apprehensive? Have you felt your heart pound, had difficulty breathing, sweat and felt chills at the same time? These are all symptoms of panic attacks and, while it is not completely understood what causes panic attacks, it is thought that a combination of biological and environmental factors is involved.
Genetics does seem to play a part as panic disorder has been shown to run in families. Some sufferers have a family member who either has or has had the disorder or has another emotional disorder such as depression. That this is due to genetics, however, is difficult to prove as it may be that the panic response is a learned behavior garnered from a parent who is prone to attacks.
A further biological cause could be changes in the way parts of the brain work. According to recent studies, sufferers of psychotic disorders like schizophrenia are also likely to suffer from panic attacks. Psychotic symptoms or episodes may occur before the beginning of anxiety disorders or they may predict the onset of one.
During a panic attack, the symptoms felt are similar to those experienced when the body’s fight or flight response system is activated. This natural alarm system is the body’s way of reacting to real danger and, in order to ready the body to defend itself by fighting or fleeing, adrenaline surges through the body and the heart rate and breathing rate increase. What is unknown is why this response is triggered when there is no real danger present.
Stress can also play a part. Major life stresses such as the death of a loved one or divorce can lower the body’s resistance and thus any biological predisposition to an anxiety disorder may kick in and trigger an attack. Stress can also be felt during a happy event such as getting married or having a baby and if the stress is severe enough, this can also lead to a panic attack.
Addicts can also be prone to panic attacks. Substance abuse such as alcohol or drugs or the withdrawal from them can bring on panic disorders.
It is likely that biological and environmental factors work together in the creation of attacks. Usually, a panic attack comes out of nowhere but subsequent episodes can be brought about by an exaggerated response to one or two of the physical symptoms associated with an attack. For example, a side effect of some medications is heart palpitations. If someone taking the medicine has already experienced a panic attack and associates a racing heart with that, then they can work themselves up into another attack. Paradoxically, many times it is the fear of having another attack that brings it on.
Whatever the cause, there is help and precisely because the exact causes are unknown, this usually involves different forms of therapy.