A panic attack is an unexplained arrival of fear due to an inappropriate fight or flight response in the body. The manifestations of a panic attack include a rapid increase of heart rate, shortness of breath, choking sensations, sweating, trembling, dizziness, disorientation, hot flashes, nausea, cold chills, and fear of dying. These symptoms manifest so unexpectedly that the person having a panic attack sometimes feels like he/she is having a heart attack.
The symptoms of panic attacks are associated with the breakdown of the amygdala; the amygdala is a small area in the brain which deals with endurance. There is a propensity for panic attacks to run in families. Having a single panic attack does not indicate that you have a panic disorder. However, if you have frequent panic attacks, you may have a panic disorder. Some people have situational panic; people who suffer from agoraphobia often feel panic when they leave their comfort zones. Some people cannot even leave their homes, others are fearful of crowds, and some panic in unfamiliar places.
A panic disorder tends to change a person’s behavior; he or she may be continually afraid of an impending attack. Panic disorders may be the result of stimulant use, medical conditions, and withdrawal symptoms from addictive drugs and prescribed medications. Panic disorders may also stem from stressful living situations, or stressful situations in the person’s work environment.
Medical causes for panic attacks
A panic disorder may be a symptom of a psychological condition, medical condition, or diet. Panic attacks can be a symptom of some heart disorders such as mitral valve prolapse, hypoglycemia, hyperthyroidism and others. These three medical conditions will be discussed briefly below.
Mitral valve prolapse – One of the most common heart disorders which cause panic attacks is mitral valve prolapse. A prolapsed mitral valve occurs when the valve doesn’t open or close properly. When the valves don’t work properly, the heart is less efficient which usually causes extreme anxiety.
Hypoglycemia – Hypoglycemia is low glucose levels in the blood. When there isn’t enough blood sugar to be used for insulin, the body reacts with anxiety and panic.
Hyperthyroidism – Hyperthyroidism is characterized by over-stimulation of the thyroid gland. This pathological condition the thyroid gland produces far too many thyroid hormones. The body often reacts with anxiety and/or panic.
Stimulant causes for panic attacks
Stimulant use may generate symptoms of anxiety or panic. Part of withdrawal is the feeling of anxiety and panic. Overuse of energy drinks, caffeine in coffee, sodas and some teas can generate panic attacks. If you are prone to have panic attacks your doctor will likely advise you to avoid caffeine in drinks, cocoa, over-the-counter weight loss products, ginseng, and cayenne.
Withdrawal and panic
Using cocaine, amphetamines, and other forbidden stimulant drugs generate anxiety and panic. Many people find it difficult to get off these drugs because detoxification can cause extreme anxiety and panic until the body gets accustomed to being off drugs. It is important for people who are going through detoxification to avoid caffeine. Caffeine can stimulate and amplify the feelings of panic. Aside from the panic, caffeine can cause severe headaches, nausea, tremors, disorientation, and other symptoms that were listed above. It takes some time for the neuroreceptors to disengage during the detoxification process. Until the brain acclimates to the changes, you will be vulnerable to anything that can trigger anxiety and panic.
Genetic causes for panic attacks
Some people have a genetic predisposition toward a biological malfunction that might cause panic attacks. Panic disorders occur more in women than in men; in fact, women are twice more likely to suffer from panic disorders than men. One’s predisposition to panic disorders becomes amplified when stressful situations are one of the triggers.
An appropriate diagnosis of panic disorders should be made by mental health professionals. If you think you might have some of the characteristics of a panic disorder, please consult with your doctor right away. Panic disorders have a way of stealing the joy out of one’s life. The sooner you get diagnosed, the sooner you can start treatment and regain your quality of life as soon as possible.
Author’s note: I have a panic disorder that is situational. Mine is agoraphobia. I can leave my home, but I have a fear of driving in unfamiliar territory. I cannot drive out of my comfort zone. My comfort zone is about a 35 mile radius from my home; once I begin to approach the boundary of my comfort zone, I begin to feel the anxiety rise and it will quickly explode into full blown panic. As a nurse, I know that I cannot let my fear get the best of me; therefore, I will be taking baby steps toward learning to drive in unfamiliar places. The panic can only go so high before it begins to subside; I know it won’t kill me. Each time I venture out to a new place by myself, it will be a small victory.