What Causes Panic Disorders?

Wednesday 25 November 2020
Mental Health

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Nick Ho, MD
on 9 February 2021

Table of Contents

I. What Are Panic Disorders?

II. Causes of Panic Disorders

a. Genetics

b. Life Transitions

c. Traumatic Events

d. Medical Conditions

e. Substance Abuse

III. How Are Panic Disorders Treated?

a. Medications

b. Psychotherapy

What Are Panic Disorders?

A panic disorder is a mental health condition that causes panic attacks to occur repeatedly and unexpectedly. Panic attacks can occur to anyone at any time, without warning. They are fairly common and happen when people feel overwhelmingly stressed, tired, or panicked. Most people experience a panic attack at least once in their life. [2] Having a panic attack does not mean that you have a panic disorder. 

Panic attacks typically begin quickly and reach their peak within ten minutes. The peak of the attack typically lasts between five and ten minutes, although it can take longer for all the symptoms to finish. [2] The most common symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Increased heartbeat
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Sweating
  • Pain in your chest or stomach
  • Feeling as if you are losing control
  • Feeling weak or dizzy
  • Feeling hot or cold
  • Numb or tingly hands [3]

A black and white image of a man clutching his chest in pain

People with a panic disorder not only suffer from panic attacks, but they also have a persistent fear of having another panic attack. It is this overwhelming and constant fear that creates a panic disorder. If you have been worrying about having a panic attack or the consequences of a panic attack for a month or longer, then you may have a panic disorder. 

Keep reading to learn more about this condition, including the causes and how it can be treated using medications such as Celexa (citalopram) or Prozac (fluoxetine). 

Causes of Panic Disorders

As with many other mental health disorders, the exact cause of a panic attack, or a panic disorder, is unknown. 

a. Genetics

Research has found that several different areas of the brain play a role in generating fear and anxiety. Panic disorders often run in families, so the condition is believed to be, at least partially, genetic. [1] However, it is possible that it is not simply genes that make this condition run in families. It is also possible that living in an environment with someone that has regular panic attacks or a panic disorder may increase the likelihood of a child developing that condition later in life. [4]

b. Life Transitions

A person goes through many significant transitions and changes during their lifetime. These include leaving home to go to college, getting married, and having children. All of these transitions can be incredibly stressful and may trigger a panic attack or disorder. [1]

c. Traumatic Events

Traumatic events may also increase the risk of a panic disorder. Events such as having a serious accident or experiencing a sexual assault understandably increase your fear and anxiety, leading to a panic attack. Other stressful events, such as a family bereavement, may also trigger a panic disorder. 

A white coffin with flowers on top in the back of a hearse

d. Medical Conditions

Although panic disorders are mental health conditions, they can also be caused by physical conditions. People suffering from regular panic attacks should visit a doctor to rule out a physical cause. Common medical conditions that may cause a panic disorder include hyperthyroidism, low blood sugar, and mitral valve prolapse (a heart problem). [5]

e. Substance Abuse

It is unlikely that drug or alcohol abuse will cause an initial panic attack. However, using these substances in order to deal with an existing panic disorder may worsen your symptoms. [4] 

How Are Panic Disorders Treated?

a. Medications

Panic disorders are treated like many other mental health conditions, using a combination of prescription medications and psychotherapy. Medications are usually antidepressants or central nervous system depressants. Antidepressants used to treat panic disorders include Celexa (citalopram) and Prozac (fluoxetine). Central nervous system depressants (benzodiazepines) may also be prescribed on a short-term basis. 

It may take several weeks to feel the benefits of your medications. If you do not notice an improvement, your doctor may suggest switching to a different medication. 

Pink medication in a blister pack

b. Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy) is also effective when treating panic disorders. Talk therapy can help you understand and cope with the condition. A common form of psychotherapy is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). CBT recreates the symptoms and sensations of having a panic attack in a safe space. This helps the patient to gradually overcome their fears. Once again, therapy is not a quick short-term treatment option and takes time and effort before you see an improvement. 

You may notice symptoms reduced within several weeks and significantly decreased after a number of months. Once symptoms have gone, it may still be beneficial to have occasional talk therapy sessions in order to reduce the likelihood of a recurring panic attack. [6]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.


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