What Causes Panic Attacks?

A panic attack is an intense episode of sudden and overwhelming fear or anxiety that can strike without warning. They can be incredibly distressing, leaving individuals feeling frightened and out of control. If you or someone you know has experienced a panic attack, it’s important to understand the underlying causes in order to manage and potentially prevent future episodes. In this article, we will explore some common factors that contribute to panic attacks.

1. Genetic Factors

Research suggests that genetics play a role in the development of panic attacks. People with a family history of panic disorder or other anxiety disorders are more likely to experience panic attacks themselves. Certain genetic variations may influence the way the brain processes fear and triggers the body’s stress response, increasing the vulnerability to panic attacks.

2. Neurochemical Imbalance

Imbalances in brain chemicals, particularly neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine, are thought to contribute to the occurrence of panic attacks. These neurotransmitters regulate mood and emotions, and disruptions in their levels or functioning can lead to heightened anxiety and panic symptoms. Medications that target these imbalances, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are often prescribed to manage panic disorder.

3. Environmental Factors

Environmental factors can also contribute to the development of panic attacks. Traumatic experiences, such as physical or emotional abuse, accidents, or natural disasters, can trigger the onset of panic disorder. Chronic stress, major life changes, and ongoing exposure to stressful situations can also increase the risk of panic attacks. Additionally, substance abuse, including excessive caffeine or drug use, can exacerbate anxiety symptoms and potentially trigger panic attacks.

4. Cognitive Factors

Cognitive factors refer to patterns of thinking and interpretation that can influence the occurrence of panic attacks. People with panic disorder often have certain cognitive biases and tendencies, such as catastrophizing or overestimating potential threats. These distorted thinking patterns can contribute to heightened anxiety and increase the likelihood of experiencing a panic attack. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment approach that helps individuals identify and challenge these maladaptive thoughts.

5. Biological Factors

Biological factors, such as an overactive amygdala or an overactive stress response system, can contribute to a panic attack. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions, including fear. In individuals with panic disorder, the amygdala may become overly sensitive or hyperactive, leading to the sudden onset of intense fear and anxiety. Additionally, an exaggerated stress response system can result in the release of stress hormones like cortisol, further exacerbating panic attack symptoms.

6. Medical Conditions

Certain medical conditions can be associated with panic attacks. For example, individuals with chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), may experience panic attacks during episodes of shortness of breath. Other conditions like hyperthyroidism, mitral valve prolapse, and certain heart conditions have also been linked to panic disorder. Proper diagnosis and treatment of these underlying medical conditions are crucial in managing panic attacks.

7. Learned Fear Response

Sometimes, panic attacks can develop as a learned response to a specific trigger or situation. For instance, if an individual experiences a panic attack in a crowded elevator, they may develop a fear of elevators and subsequently experience panic attacks whenever they encounter similar environments. This learned fear response can perpetuate the cycle of panic attacks and lead to the development of phobias.

8. Lack of Coping Mechanisms

Individuals who lack effective coping mechanisms to manage stress and anxiety may be more susceptible to panic attacks. Inadequate stress management

techniques, such as poor problem-solving skills or difficulty regulating emotions, can contribute to heightened anxiety levels. Learning healthy coping strategies, such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, and seeking support from friends or professionals, can help reduce the frequency and intensity of a panic attack.

9. Personality Traits

Certain personality traits may increase the likelihood of experiencing panic attacks. Individuals who are more prone to anxiety, perfectionism, or have a tendency to worry excessively may be at a higher risk. Additionally, those with a history of being overly self-critical or having low self-esteem may be more vulnerable to panic disorder. Developing self-compassion and adopting a positive mindset can be beneficial in managing anxiety and preventing a panic attack.

10. Sleep Disorders

Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or sleep apnea, have been associated with an increased risk of panic attacks. Lack of quality sleep can disrupt the body’s natural stress response and make individuals more susceptible to anxiety and panic symptoms. Addressing sleep-related issues through good sleep hygiene practices, seeking treatment for sleep disorders, and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can help reduce the occurrence of panic attacks.

Panic attacks can stem from a combination of genetic, neurochemical, environmental, cognitive, biological, and learned factors. Understanding these underlying causes can assist individuals in finding effective strategies to manage and prevent panic attacks. It is important to remember that seeking professional help from a healthcare provider or mental health professional is crucial for accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment options. By addressing the root causes and implementing appropriate coping mechanisms, individuals can regain control over their lives and reduce the impact of panic attacks.


To learn more about MyBrainDR and how we can help you get your life back with relief of negative symptoms, schedule a FREE CONSULTATION today. Train your brain, change your life with neurofeedback therapy in Raleigh, NC!