Panic attacks were often thought to be a “case of nerves” or a reaction to stress that had little basis in reality. People were once thought to be acting in an unrealistic way when they reported that they were frightened to the extreme. But in recent years doctors and medical researchers have started to isolate causes for a panic attack.
One of the recognized factors is genetics. Some people may experience a panic attack in specific situations because there is a family history of ancestors suffering in the same way. If this is the case, an individual may actually be the victim of a true panic disorder, as opposed to a rare panic attack.
Apart from the family connection that can truly be physical in nature, panic attacks may be caused by an unusual amount of stress. If we have anticipated a major change in our life, such as starting a new job, starting a new school year, getting married etc. we might react in an extreme way. When the “feared” day arrives we might sweat, get trembling hands or even leave the situation in a hurry to avoid the discomfort.
Some research on the subject indicates that chemical changes in the brain might also trigger a panic attack. While the basic cause of these changes is still unclear, doctors may be able to conduct specific tests to determine if a person is prone to such physical/chemical changes.
In their search for causes of panic attack, doctors might conduct a thorough physical exam, paying particular attention to such vital signs as blood pressure, breathing rate and muscle tension. Tests might include studying blood samples in detail. Psychologists and psychiatrists might also be brought in to evaluate an individual, focusing on upcoming situations that might trigger an attack. Key elements in these studies are sleeping habits, alcohol use and issues with family members.
Those who have experienced panic attacks or have recently experienced on such episode for the first time should understand that a single, rare attack is not an indication of panic disorder. In fact, the Mayo Clinic and other medical experts state that specific criteria have been established in a document called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
There is no set number for those who have panic attacks or panic disorder because the diagnostic process is certainly not set in stone. But most estimates state that as many as six million people may actually be suffering from panic disorder – the frequent onset of attack episodes.
Among the risk factors that have been established are: family history of panic attacks or panic disorder; situations or events that introduce an unusual level of stress, such as marriage job change etc.; death of a family member or very close friend; automobile or work accident. Some people who have never experienced an attack might suddenly be fearful when in a closed space or in a social situation that they can’t seem to escape from.
In many cases, a panic attack is not a serious health threat. Even though these episodes are not dangerous they are the source of fear and feelings of helplessness that are very real.