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Insight into the Causes of Panic Disorders

written by: renasherwood • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 1/13/2011

There can seem to be as many causes of panic disorders as there are people who suffer from panic disorders. But the three main causes appear to be genetics, substance abuse and stress.

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    The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that 2.7% of the American population suffers from panic disorder and 44.8% of those sufferers will be classified as “severe.” This article highlights the three main causes of panic disorders.

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    Causes of Panic Disorders: Genetics

    NIMH states that panic disorder seems to run in families. This theory has been backed up by studies of how proteins affect the brain. In 2010, in a study by the Max Planck Institute of Psychology, a gene variant called transmembrane protein 132D (TMEM132D) was identified in people and animals exhibiting panic-prone personalities. The theory is that TMEM132D intensifies the connection between the brain and its emotional center. TMEM132D may make a person feel more intensely when faced with any new situation than those without TMEM132D.

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    Causes of Panic Disorders: Substance Abuse

    The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) notes that 20% of adults with anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, also abuse some sort of chemical. They are also two to three times more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs than the general population. But just which came first? – the panic or the substance abuse – can differ for each patient. It could be that taking substances was initially a form of self-medication for soothing panic disorder symptoms.

    Panic attacks can be triggered by drugs – especially alcohol, despite alcohol’s depressing effects. ADAA notes that alcohol is the biggest danger for relapses among panic disorder patients, even if they have successfully undergone treatment.

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    Stressors

    Stress is one of the more obvious causes of panic disorders but just how it works on the brain is unknown. Panic attacks can occur when there is no threatening situation around. Panic attacks can even begin when a person is fast asleep.

    It could be that the brain has conditioned the body to initiate a panic attack for so many stressful factors – such as getting a new job, going on a date or even trying a new food – that this list of stressors grows. The body then is programmed by the brain to react to any situation by panicking.

    The brain then anticipates scary outcomes to any new situation or repeating a previous stressful situation, such as having to drive over a suspension bridge. No matter how many times a person with panic disorder safely crossed a suspension bridge; there is still a stab of fear every time a bridge is approached.

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    Sources

    “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Controlling Anxiety.” Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D. Alpha Books; 2006.

    National Institute of Mental Health. “Statistics: Panic Disorder Among Adults.” http://www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/1PANIC_ADULT.shtml

    Max Planck Institute of Psychology. “New Genetic Cause of Panic Disorder Discovered.” July 4, 2010. http://www.mpipsykl.mpg.de/en/institute/news/press/pr0410.html

    Anxiety Disorders Association of America. “Substance Abuse.” http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/substance-abuse