Five Reasons for Panic Attacks

Panic attacks can appear at the most unexpected moments. For instance, while you're working or even when you're at home sitting on the sofa. But, what lies behind these unpleasant experiences? Find out here.
Five Reasons for Panic Attacks
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 10 June, 2023

Unexpected, overwhelming, and even terrifying. You may have found yourself wondering why you have panic attacks. The sudden feeling that you’re short of breath, your heart is racing, and fear grips every fiber of your mind and body, is extremely unpleasant. Everything feels as if it’s out of your control. And, the worry that you might suffer another attack is even more frightening.

These experiences are more common than you might think. For example, the Journal of Affective Disorders points out that, in Spain, for example, 9.5 percent of the population suffers from them, especially those between 30 and 49 years of age. Therefore, they’re not an unusual occurrence. For this reason, knowing what causes them is useful.

The symptoms of a panic attack can often be confused with the signs leading up to a heart attack or a respiratory problem.

Panic attacks

A panic attack is like a tsunami. It’s an experience of unreasonable, deep, and desperate fear, for which there’s no real trigger. It’s also an experience that’s accompanied by intense physiological symptoms. So much so that many people go to the emergency room thinking that they’re about to suffer a heart attack. Indeed, the physical pain is real, as well as the emotional turmoil.

Professionals diagnose panic attacks in accordance with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). They’re defined as waves of fear and intense discomfort that last for just a few minutes. In fact, never more than ten. So, they’re brief episodes, but no less disconcerting for that. Here’s how panic attacks manifest:

Symptoms of a panic attack

The first panic attack is never forgotten. As a matter of fact, it could be said to be one of the most distressing experiences an individual can experience. Indeed, they often feel as if they’re about to die.

Physical symptoms

  • Dizziness.
  • Tremors.
  • Tachycardia.
  • Chest pain.
  • Sensations of suffocation.
  • Nausea, upset stomach.
  • Paresthesias (body tingling).
  • Chills and sweating at the same time.

Emotional and cognitive symptoms

  • Excessive and irrational fear.
  • The sufferer feels that they’re about to die.
  • Depersonalization (detachment from themselves).
  • The perception that they’re ‘going crazy’.
  • Derealization (the feeling that everything that surrounds them isn’t real).

There’s currently no known direct link between panic attacks and heart disease. In fact, a meta-analysis published in Systematic Reviews reports that this link is extremely tenuous. In reality, a heart attack rarely happens alongside a panic attack.

However, anyone who’s ever suffered a panic attack will feed back their fear at the possibility of the experience repeating itself. This is how the cycle of a panic attack begins and reinforces itself.

Behind these panic attacks may lie certain biological and genetic predispositions. For example, women tend to experience them more frequently.

Reasons for panic attacks

If you’ve ever wondered why you have panic attacks, you must understand that it’s not because you’re weak or emotionally incompetent. So, don’t punish yourself. Anyone can experience a panic attack. That said, there are certain variables that can increase your risk of suffering from them. They’re useful to know. Keep reading to discover them.

1. Biological and genetic causes

While it’s possible for anyone to experience a panic attack at some point, other people deal with them on a regular basis. The cause of this limiting clinical reality lies in genetic factors. A study conducted by Human Molecular Genetics claims that an excess of alleles is visible in the monoamine oxidase gene in women who suffer from panic attacks.

As a rule, panic attacks are more frequent in women, even more so in those with this genetic peculiarity.

2. Functional alterations in the cerebral amygdala

The reason for panic attacks could lie in the cerebral amygdala. This nerve center for emotional processing can present certain peculiarities that increase the risk of suffering them.

An analysis conducted by Ewha Womans University (South Korea) states that the amygdala, the center of fear processing networks, is linked to both panic attacks and their chronic version: panic disorder.

This brain region causes the sufferer to always place themselves in a constant state of alarm. The hyperarousal encapsulates them in a perception of persistent fear, with the feeling that something extremely bad is about to happen.

During a panic attack, the prefrontal cortex, associated with logic and reasoning, disconnects. This offers greater power to the amygdala, which is linked to emotional processing such as fear.

3. Chronic stress or continued pressure

Although stress is a natural mechanism that allows us to face specific challenges and threats, sometimes it’s beyond our control. When stressful situations and pressure drag on and demands exceed our psychological resources, panic attacks appear.

In these situations, the body and the brain demonstrate really high levels of cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. This accumulated tension can ‘explode’ at any moment. Some people also have a lower resistance to stress. It might be due to neurobiological factors or inadequate coping strategies. This increases the appearance of panic attacks.

4. When fear is overwhelming

Panic attacks can arise alone or are comorbid with other disorders such as anxiety or trauma. Indeed, life often places us in difficult circumstances that we don’t always know how to handle and that are accompanied by persistent feelings of fear. For example:

  • Coping with a loss.
  • Having a loved one who’s sick.
  • Dealing with psychological trauma.
  • Losing a job and facing financial problems.
  • Suffering from phobias, such as public speaking.
  • Confronting really intense life changes, such as relationship breakups.

5. Other reasons for panic attacks

For decades, science has been warning about the fact that tobacco increases the risk of suffering from panic attacks.

In fact, a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry emphasizes this point. It confirms the fact that smoking affects the appearance of certain psychological disorders, as is the case with anxiety. Furthermore, the consumption of certain psychoactive drugs frequently leads to panic attacks.

Anyone can suffer a panic attack. They act as wake-up calls. If they become frequent and affect the individual’s quality of life, they must seek specialized help.

What to do if you have a panic attack

A panic attack is an underlying symptom of an emotional reality that must be attended to. It’s a wake-up call. If you experience one and understand the reason, you must address it.

However, if you don’t understand why it’s happened and experience more than one panic attack in a month, you must seek specialized help. Here are some guidelines for dealing with a panic attack.

Helpful tips

When a panic attack is triggered in your body and mind, don’t fight against it. Understand that nothing bad will happen to you. You’re not going to die; your heart is fine. Accept that it’s a psychophysiological reaction to an experience of stress or anguish maintained over time. It’s like an explosion of symptoms in the face of unregulated fear.

  • Repeat to yourself that you’re safe.
  • Visualize relaxing and positive images.
  • Stay where you are and take slow, deep breaths.
  • Tell yourself that the experience will soon be over.

Tips for preventing panic attacks

To prevent panic attacks, you need to understand the reason behind their appearance. If you’re going through difficult times, ask for professional support or help from your friends and family. The following strategies will also help:

  • Exercise. Walk every day.
  • Practice yoga or mindfulness.
  • Lean on the people who love you.
  • Learn troubleshooting resources.
  • Get started with progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Learn relaxation techniques and deep breathing.
  • Introduce techniques to regulate stress and your emotions.
  • Improve your life habits. Avoid alcohol, exercise, and sleep well.

Finally, bear in mind that approaches such as brief strategic therapy are effective in addressing panic attacks or panic disorders. Don’t hesitate to take the step of regaining control of your life and achieving the well-being you deserve.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Deckert, J., Catalano, M., Syagailo, Y. V., Bosi, M., Okladnova, O., Di Bella, D., Nöthen, M. M., Maffei, P., Franke, P., Fritze, J., Maier, W., Propping, P., Beckmann, H., Bellodi, L., & Lesch, K. P. (1999). Excess of high activity monoamine oxidase A gene promoter alleles in female patients with panic disorder. Human Molecular Genetics8(4), 621–624.
  • Isensee, B., Wittchen, H.-U., Stein, M. B., Höfler, M., & Lieb, R. (2003). Smoking increases the risk of panic: findings from a prospective community study: Findings from a prospective community study. Archives of General Psychiatry60(7), 692–700.
  • Kim, J. E., Dager, S. R., & Lyoo, I. K. (2012). The role of the amygdala in the pathophysiology of panic disorder: evidence from neuroimaging studies. Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders2(1), 20.
  • Na, H.-R., Kang, E.-H., Lee, J.-H., & Yu, B.-H. (2011). The genetic basis of panic disorder. Journal of Korean Medical Science26(6), 701–710.
  • Olaya, B., Moneta, M. V., Miret, M., Ayuso-Mateos, J. L., & Haro, J. M. (2018). Epidemiology of panic attacks, panic disorder and the moderating role of age: Results from a population-based study. Journal of Affective Disorders241, 627–633.
  • Tully, P. J., Wittert, G. A., Turnbull, D. A., Beltrame, J. F., Horowitz, J. D., Cosh, S., & Baumeister, H. (2015). Panic disorder and incident coronary heart disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis protocol. Systematic Reviews4(1), 33.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.