Understanding Panic Attacks

Causes of Panic Attacks

The same parts of the brain that are active during fear response are active during panic attacks.
The same parts of the brain that are active during fear response are active during panic attacks.

Unfortunately, doctors don't know exactly what causes panic attacks, but they do have some theories.

Some researchers theorize that life-changing events or generally stressful periods cause panic attacks. Studies have shown that a significant number of people with panic disorder experienced traumatic childhood events, such as the death of a parent [source: Campbell]. Other research suggests that it isn't just environmental, but rather is genetic. For instance, studies found that identical twins are more likely to share the disorder than fraternal twins [source: Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders]. However, other data contradict that theory, so the matter is still up for debate.

Researchers also look to the neurological functions behind fear and panic attacks to find an explanation. Some believe that when this fear system in the brain is overused -- when it is called into action too intensely or too often -- it becomes excessively sensitive so that only small triggers set it off [source: Bourne]. Others note that when you are tired, your brain produces sodium lactate or carbon dioxide. When sodium lactate or carbon dioxide levels increase, the brain mistakenly believes you are suffocating and sends signals to increase your breathing rate to get more oxygen [source: Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders]. This can trigger a panic attack.

Another theory has to do with the neurotransmitters serotonin and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), which play a part in calming the brain [source: Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders]. People who suffer from panic disorder appear to have fewer serotonin receptors than others [source: NIMH]. Medications that increase the supply of serotonin and GABA, which we'll discuss more in the treatment page, prove effective in combating panic disorder.

Usually, panic disorder strikes people in their twenties, but children can suffer from it as well. Twice as many women develop panic disorder as men. The fear of an attack can actually trigger one; when this happens too frequently, it can lead to agoraphobia. Luckily, panic attacks are very treatable, and those who suffer from them have a few effective options. We'll learn about those options on the next page.