Panic Attacks Causes & Risk Factors

Having a panic attack is a frightening experience. A great deal of the fear that comes from having a panic attack has to do with not understanding what a panic attack is or where it comes from. For most, a panic attack will feel like a major medical emergency. People who are having a panic attack feel like they are dying or having a heart attack when they are actually experiencing a severe and intense reaction to stress. Sometimes it will be apparent to a person why he or she is having a panic attack, and sometimes it will seem to spring up from nowhere. It can sometimes be difficult to identify the trigger for a panic attack, which makes it almost impossible to anticipate.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

Before one can understand what causes a panic attack it is important to be able to identify a panic attack. A panic attack causes many distressing symptoms that can feel like a severe medical emergency, but they are not dangerous and do not last long. Panic attacks are a reaction to stress. Common symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Ringing in ears
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • The belief you are dying or having a medical emergency
  • Hyperventilation
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Numbness or pins and needles in parts of body

These symptoms typically last about seven to ten minutes, reaching a peak and then diminishing. With severe panic attacks it is possible to experience a black out or even temporarily lose consciousness.

Causes and Risk Factors of a Panic Attack

Panic attacks are a reaction to severe anxiety and stress. Those who suffer from chronic anxiety or posttraumatic stress disorder often experience panic attacks. A scary event or being overwhelmed with stress can bring about panic attacks. A history of panic attacks is most prevalent in people with anxiety, mood disorders, and psychotic disorders, like:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Phobias
  • Panic disorder
  • Acute stress disorder
  • Depression
  • Pervasive depressive disorder
  • Postpartum depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Adjustment disorder
  • Drug-induced psychosis

Even though most who experience panic attacks have a history of mental illness, it is not necessary for diagnosis. There are many people who have experienced panic attacks as a reaction to life circumstances. Panic attacks can be a reaction to stress, trauma, or poor coping strategies when adapting to difficult situations. Some examples of circumstances that could result in a panic attack are:

  • Stress. Stress at home, work, or school happens at varying degrees. Everyone has a threshold for how much stress they can handle, but sometimes stress from responsibilities or expectations can become overwhelming. The stress of being overwhelmed with responsibilities can result in a panic attack.
  • Family or relationship issues. Family can be a major source of stress as all families face their own struggles, issues and conflicts. Family and relationships issues can result in a panic attack if the stress becomes severe. For example, struggling with a relationship that is important to the affected person can cause emotional distress. Apprehension about the relationship and the future can result in a panic attack.
  • Medical issues. Some people may experience panic attacks when trying to cope with medical issues. Coping with medical and health related issues is scary, and sometimes the bodily changes and challenges can cause a person to fall into emotional distress. This imbalance of emotions and stress can result in a panic attack as the brain overworks itself to make sense of all the changes that are happening.
  • Mental, physical, emotional or sexual abuse or trauma. Abuse and trauma are two of the biggest causes of panic attacks. Typically panic attacks triggered by abuse or trauma are the result of symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, but a person does not necessarily have to be diagnosed to have a panic attack. A panic attack can happen in reaction to learning how to cope with these traumatic events and memories.
  • Unresolved grief. Grieving is one of the most difficult things a person can go through. Everyone’s grieving process is different and each person has different needs and expectations for their own mourning. Society can often put pressure on people to act and think a certain way. That pressure coupled with coming to terms with a loss is enough to overwhelm a person. It is not uncommon to experience a panic attack when dealing with grief and loss.
  • Adjustment. Some people struggle with adjusting to different life circumstances. Big life changes like moving, a new job, or becoming a parent are very stressful things to go through. Sometimes when adjusting to big life events a person can feel a great deal of pressure and anxiety. Such anxiety can cause a panic attack.
  • Uncertainty about the future. A major source of anxiety for most people is not knowing what the future will hold. People try hard to set a path for their futures by going to school, taking care of their health and advancing in their career, but sometimes things out of anyone’s control affect their progress. Sometimes that feeling of being out of control over your own future or destiny can be enough to cause mental and emotional distress, resulting in a panic attack.

These types of situations can be particularly alarming because the person experiencing the panic attack as a result of these circumstances may not have previously had to deal with symptoms of panic attacks or acute anxiety. This may distort their understanding of the experience, causing them to believe they are suffering from a severe medical issue.

How Self-Care Affects Prevalence of Panic Attacks

Self-care habits can affect your chances of having a panic attack. It is important to take care of your body and mind, but sometimes it can be difficult to keep up with self-care along with all of the rest of your daily responsibilities. While it can be difficult to keep up, it is important to make sure you take good care of yourself. Going through a period of time in which self-care is not considered can result in an increase of panic attacks. Some important considerations that contribute to the risk having of a panic attack include:

  • Sleep. Getting enough sleep is important for maintaining self-care, especially when dealing with stressful circumstances like those previously outlined. When you do not get enough sleep your ability to manage stress is negatively impacted. Fatigue can increase risk of having a panic attack when dealing with other life stressors.
  • ‘Me’ time. Everyone has responsibilities, but it is important to make sure that you make relaxation time a priority. It can be hard to find time for personal activities but it is important to make sure to do things that are positively stimulating. Things like exercise, socializing, and engaging in hobbies and interests all reduce stress and lessen the chances of having a panic attack.
  • Reasonable expectations. It is important to have reasonable expectations for yourself. Sometimes people put expectations on themselves that are too high or unrealistic. If you feel that you are overloading your schedule or setting expectations that are difficult to achieve than it may be a good idea to take a step back and re-evaluate whether you are setting realistic expectations. A great way to make sure you maintain reasonable expectations for yourself is to make small, attainable goals that will serve as objectives to help you achieve your overall goal. Instead of focusing on the overall goal, set smaller objectives with reasonable deadlines and workloads that will help you work toward your goal. This will help you maintain a sense of accomplishment in your efforts as you get closer to achieving your goals.
  • Support. When dealing with stress, grief, adjustment, or mental illness it is very important to have a support system. Dealing with such challenges is difficult, and when you do not feel a sense of support, encouragement or security from others it can make you feel as though you are alone in your struggles. Having support can make a huge difference in how you are able to manage your anxiety. Without support your struggles and grievances build up, and eventually there will be a ‘pressure cooker effect’, causing it all to bubble over. This drastically increases your chances of having a panic attack. Support can come from many different people, like friends, family, counselors, religious leaders, and peer support programs. Be sure to identify and utilize a support system to reduce your risk of panic attacks.

There are many different reasons why people have panic attacks. Factors like life stress, mental illness, fatigue, or grief all are legitimate causes for experiencing a panic attack. Panic attacks are common, and most people will experience a panic attack at some point in their lives. If you have been regularly experiencing panic attacks, or feel that panic attacks are affecting your quality of life, it is important to speak with a medical or mental health professional. A professional will be able to help you find ways to reduce the amount of panic attacks you are experiencing by identifying the triggers for the attacks and helping you learn ways to cope with stress.