People will often experience panic attacks as a direct result of exposure to an object/situation that they have a phobia for. Panic attacks may also become situationally-bound when certain situations are associated with panic due to previously experiencing an attack in that particular situation. People may also have a cognitive or behavioral predisposition to having panic attacks in certain situations.
Panic disorder is characterized by uncontrollable, recurrent episodes of panic and fear that peak within minutes. Panic attacks are accompanied by physical manifestations, such as heart palpitations, sweating, and dizziness as well as the fear of dying or becoming insane. Worry about having an attack may lead to additional anxiety and avoidance behaviors or to other problems in functioning.
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.
Your brain focuses on some alleged thread, for instance, a very scary thought that was floating somewhere at your subconscious. Your thalamus – the part of the brain responsible for regulating consciousness, sleep and alertness – transfers that information to your amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions, decision-making and memory – which marks it as “danger” and sends a signal to your sympathetic nervous system, activating the fight-or-flight response.
At some point in our lives, most of us will experience a panic attack in response to an actual danger or acute stress. But when panic attacks occur or recur for no reason and in the absence of danger or extreme stress, or when the fear of experiencing another attack is so strong that you change your behavior by avoiding certain places or people, you may have panic disorder.
Panic attacks may also be caused by substances. Discontinuation or marked reduction in the dose of a substance such as a drug (drug withdrawal), for example an antidepressant (antidepressant discontinuation syndrome), can cause a panic attack. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, "the most commonly reported side effects of smoking marijuana are anxiety and panic attacks. Studies report that about 20% to 30% of recreational users experience such problems after smoking marijuana."
While the use of drugs in treating panic attacks can be very successful, it is generally recommended that people also be in some form of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Drug treatments are usually used throughout the duration of panic attack symptoms, and discontinued after the patient has been free of symptoms for at least six months. It is usually safest to withdraw from these drugs gradually while undergoing therapy. While drug treatment seems promising for children and adolescents, they are at an increased risk of suicide while taking these medications and their well-being should be monitored closely.
Once an individual has had a panic attack, for example, while driving, shopping in a crowded store, or riding in an elevator, he or she may develop irrational fears, called phobias, about these situations and begin to avoid them. Eventually, the avoidance and level of nervousness about the possibility of having another attack may reach the point at which the mere idea of engaging in the activities that preceded the first panic attack triggers future panic attacks, resulting in the person with panic disorder potentially being unable to drive or even step out of the house (agoraphobia). Thus, there are two types of panic disorder, panic disorder with or without agoraphobia. Like other mental health conditions, panic disorder can have a serious impact on a person's daily life unless the individual receives effective treatment.
Anxiety attacks that occur while sleeping, also called nocturnal panic attacks, occur less often than panic attacks during the daytime but affect about 40%-70% of those who suffer from daytime panic attacks. This symptom is also important because people who suffer from panic symptoms during sleep tend to have more respiratory distress associated with their panic. They also tend to experience more symptoms of depression and other psychiatric disorders compared to people who do not have panic attacks at night. Nocturnal panic attacks tend to cause sufferers to wake suddenly from sleep in a state of sudden fear or dread for no apparent reason. In contrast to people with sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, sufferers of nocturnal panic can have all the other symptoms of a panic attack. The duration of nocturnal panic attacks tends to be less than 10 minutes, but it can take much longer to fully calm down for those who experience them.
Social anxiety disorder (previously called social phobia): People with social anxiety disorder have a general intense fear of, or anxiety toward, social or performance situations. They worry that actions or behaviors associated with their anxiety will be negatively evaluated by others, leading them to feel embarrassed. This worry often causes people with social anxiety to avoid social situations. Social anxiety disorder can manifest in a range of situations, such as within the workplace or the school environment.