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Panic Disorder Causes and Triggers

A panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that can cause severe episodes of fear and distress. It’s a complex disorder that can have a range of potential causes and triggers. Though there is no cure for panic disorders, they are treatable, and identifying triggers can be an important part of learning to deal with symptoms.

What Is a Panic Disorder?

It sounds pretty self-explanatory, but many disorders and mental health conditions can cause panic attacks that don’t necessarily indicate a panic disorder. For panic attacks to qualify as a panic disorder, they have to be recurring and affect your behavior. People who experience an untreated panic disorder often start to display what’s called avoidance behavior. They may begin to avoid places and situations where they experienced panic attacks before. 

For instance, if you have a panic attack in an elevator, you may avoid elevators, even if you don’t have any specific fear that’s related to elevators. You may also start to avoid situations as well, like long car rides. If a panic disorder is left untreated, it may start to cause you to isolate yourself, avoiding any potential triggers. 

Panic disorders also can’t be ruled out as a symptom of another mental illness or a side effect of some psychoactive substance. For instance, unresolved past trauma can lead to panic attacks. Central nervous stimulants can also cause panic attacks as a side effect. However, panic disorder often has no clear causes or explanations.

What Causes Panic Disorders?

Mental health disorders are often complex and defy being attributed to any singular cause. Panic disorders are particularly challenging to pin down because other disorders and substances that could cause those symptoms are ruled out. Panic disorders are most likely caused by a combination of genetic, biochemical, environmental, and developmental causes. Genetic causes are identified by looking at family histories of panic disorders. 

However, sometimes some family members struggle with the disorder while others don’t. Still, it’s clear that anxiety is related to biochemical processes in the brain. It’s often caused by nervous system overexcitability in the brain. For that reason, medications that suppress nervous system excitability like benzodiazepines can be used to treat panic disorders.

Common Anxiety Triggers

Panic disorders can be treated with a form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A big part of CBT is learning to identify triggers of anxiety and how to deal with them. Anxiety triggers can be related to triggering panic attacks. Sometimes they can be avoided, but it’s better to learn coping skills that can help you deal with triggers without the need for avoidance. Here are some common anxiety triggers:

  • Physical symptoms or health scares. Anxiety and panic are often caused by the idea that your health is failing, like when you think you’re having a heart attack because of chest pain.
  • Catastrophizing. When small problems lead to severe consequences in your mind.
  • Negative thoughts. Negative thoughts that have no outside cause can lead to anxiety or panic.
  • Financial instability. Money problems or the thought that you might have money problems.
  • Interpersonal conflict. Relationship issues are a common source of anxiety.
  • High-stress environments. Jobs where you are constantly under fire or entrusted with high-stakes responsibilities.

Sources

Mayo Clinic. (2018, May 4). Panic attacks and panic disorder. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/panic-attacks/symptoms-causes/syc-20376021

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, January). Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Alcohol, Marijuana, Cocaine, Methamphetamine, Nicotine). Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/evidence-based-approaches-to-drug-addiction-treatment/behavioral

National Institute of Mental Health. (2018, July). Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, June 6). Prescription Stimulants. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-stimulants

RxList. (2018, February 6). Benzodiazepines Drug Class: Side Effects, Types & Uses. Retrieved from https://www.rxlist.com/benzodiazepines/drug-class.htm

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