A panic attack? I thought panic attacks were reserved for women who were overly emotional and struggled with a mood disorder. The picture I had of these women from after-school movies and health class worksheets hadn’t prepared me for the idea that a relatively happy wife, mother, teacher, writer, and friend could be suffering from a panic attack. This had to be wrong.
Fortunately, panic disorder is one of the most treatable of the anxiety disorders. Psychotherapy (sometimes called talk therapy), cognitive, or biofeedback therapy can all help alter a person's response to stimuli. Medications, such as antidepressants and beta-blockers, are another option. And certain lifestyle changes, such as limiting caffeine and sticking to a daily exercise plan, can decrease symptoms as well.
Although there are not specific causes for panic attacks in adults, teens, or children, like most other emotional symptoms, panic is understood to be the result of a combination of biological vulnerabilities, ways of thinking, and environmental factors like social stressors. According to one theory of panic disorder, the body's normal "alarm system," also described as the body's fight or flight system, the set of mental and physical mechanisms that allows a person to respond to a threat, tends to be triggered when there is no danger. Scientists don't know specifically why this happens or why some people are more susceptible to the problem than others. Panic disorder has been found to run in families, and this may mean that inheritance (genetics) plays a role in determining who will develop the condition. However, many people who have no family history of the disorder develop it. Studies differ as to whether drugs like marijuana or nutritional deficiencies like zinc or magnesium deficiencies may also be risk factors for developing panic disorder.
Genetics and family history (e.g., parental anxiety) may predispose an individual for an increased risk of an anxiety disorder, but generally external stimuli will trigger its onset or exacerbation. Genetic differences account for about 43% of variance in panic disorder and 28% in generalized anxiety disorder. Although single genes are neither necessary nor sufficient for anxiety by themselves, several gene polymorphisms have been found to correlate with anxiety: PLXNA2, SERT, CRH, COMT and BDNF. Several of these genes influence neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and norepinephrine) and hormones (such as cortisol) which are implicated in anxiety. The epigenetic signature of at least one of these genes BDNF has also been associated with anxiety and specific patterns of neural activity.
Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience spontaneous seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and are very preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack. Panic attacks occur unexpectedly, sometimes even when waking up from sleep. Panic disorder usually begins in adulthood (after age 20), but children can also have panic disorder and many children experience panic-like symptoms (“fearful spells”).
Other research suggests that social structures that contribute to inequality, such as lower wages, may play a part. In a study published in January 2016 in the journal Social Science and Medicine, Columbia epidemiologists reviewed data on wages and mood disorders, and noted that, at least in their data set, when a woman's pay rose higher than a man's, the odds of her having both generalized anxiety disorder and major depression decreased. (10)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an extreme anxiety disorder that can occur in the aftermath of a traumatic or life-threatening event. PTSD can be thought of as a panic attack that rarely, if ever, lets up. Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks or nightmares about what happened, hypervigilance, startling easily, withdrawing from others, and avoiding situations that remind you of the event.
Cognitive therapy and exposure therapy are two CBT methods that are often used, together or by themselves, to treat social anxiety disorder. Cognitive therapy focuses on identifying, challenging, and then neutralizing unhelpful or distorted thoughts underlying anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy focuses on confronting the fears underlying an anxiety disorder to help people engage in activities they have been avoiding. Exposure therapy is sometimes used along with relaxation exercises and/or imagery.