Panic disorder is typically characterized by frequent episodes of panic that are not triggered by any specific event. Under normal circumstances, a person may experience anxiety or even a panic attack as a result of a dangerous or stressful situation, but this response is transient, lasting for only a short period of time. In the case of panic disorder, anxiety or panic attacks occur randomly and without any apparent cause.
Some of the causes or contributors to panic attacks are thought to include:
Previous traumatic life experiences
Traumatic experiences may include exposure to particularly frightening or stressful life events such as bereavement, parental divorce or physical or sexual abuse. Panic attacks may not occur immediately after or during such events, but resurface many years after the stressful situation has been resolved.
Alterations of neurotransmitters within the brain
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transmit signals from neurons to target cells across a synapse. An imbalance in neurotransmitters can result in a variety of mental health conditions such as depression, schizophrenia or panic disorder.
Although the exact gene responsible for causing panic disorder is not known, a family history can predispose a person to developing the condition.
An increased inhalation of carbon dioxide has been suggested to raise the risk of panic attacks among certain individuals. Other possible triggers include a low blood glucose level, overactive thyroid gland, inflammation of the inner ear (labyrinthitis), adrenal gland tumor and a prolapsed mitral valve.
Many individuals with panic disorder also interpret slightly threatening situations or physical symptoms of illness in an exaggerated manner and therefore trigger a panic attack. An excessive intake of caffeine from energy drinks or coffee for example, may also trigger a panic attack.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc