How Do You Get Panic Attacks

Imagine feeling an overwhelming sense of fear and dread that washes over you suddenly, leaving you breathless and paralyzed. This is the experience of a panic attack – a haunting phenomenon that affects countless individuals worldwide. But have you ever pondered on how these panic attacks come to be? In this article, we will explore the various factors that contribute to the onset of panic attacks, shedding light on the hidden triggers that lie within our minds and bodies. By understanding these underlying causes, we can strive towards a deeper sense of empathy and compassion for those who suffer from this debilitating condition.

Table of Contents

Causes of Panic Attacks

Genetic factors

Genetic factors can play a role in the development of panic attacks. If you have a family history of panic disorder or anxiety disorders, you may be at a higher risk of experiencing panic attacks yourself. Certain genes may predispose individuals to be more susceptible to anxiety and panic symptoms.

Brain chemistry

Imbalances in brain chemicals, such as serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), can contribute to the occurrence of panic attacks. These chemicals regulate mood and anxiety levels in the brain, and any disruption in their balance can lead to increased anxiety and a higher likelihood of experiencing panic attacks.

Environmental factors

Environmental factors can also contribute to the onset of panic attacks. Stressful life events, such as the loss of a loved one, divorce, or job loss, can trigger the development of panic attacks. Additionally, ongoing stressors in daily life, such as work-related pressures or financial difficulties, can increase the risk of experiencing panic attacks.

Major life transitions

Major life transitions, such as moving to a new city, starting a new job or school, getting married, or becoming a parent, can bring about significant changes and increased stress levels. These transitions can trigger feelings of anxiety and overwhelm, potentially leading to panic attacks in some individuals.

Traumatic experiences

Experiencing a traumatic event, such as physical or sexual abuse, a natural disaster, or a car accident, can have long-lasting effects on mental health. Trauma can cause a heightened sense of fear and anxiety, making individuals more susceptible to panic attacks.

Chronic medical conditions

Certain chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, respiratory disorders, or thyroid issues, can contribute to the development of panic attacks. The physical symptoms associated with these conditions, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, or palpitations, can trigger panic-like symptoms.

Substance abuse

Substance abuse, including the use of drugs or excessive alcohol consumption, can increase the risk of experiencing panic attacks. Substance abuse can disrupt brain chemistry and impair the body’s ability to regulate emotions, making individuals more vulnerable to panic attacks.

Stress and anxiety

High levels of stress and chronic anxiety can contribute to the occurrence of panic attacks. When stress levels become overwhelming, the body’s natural stress response may trigger a panic attack. Managing stress and anxiety through healthy coping mechanisms and relaxation techniques is important in reducing the likelihood of panic attacks.

Personality factors

Certain personality traits, such as being highly self-critical, perfectionistic, or prone to excessive worrying, can increase the risk of developing panic attacks. Individuals with these personality traits may be more susceptible to anxiety and may have a heightened sensitivity to stressors, making them more prone to panic attacks.

Panic disorder

Having a diagnosis of panic disorder is a significant risk factor for experiencing panic attacks. Panic disorder is characterized by recurrent and unexpected panic attacks, along with persistent worry and fear of future attacks. Individuals with panic disorder may have a heightened sensitivity to physical sensations and may actively avoid situations that they associate with panic attacks.

Risk Factors for Panic Attacks

Family history

Having a family history of panic disorder or other anxiety disorders increases the risk of experiencing panic attacks. This suggests that there may be a genetic component to panic attacks.


Studies indicate that women are more likely than men to experience panic attacks. Hormonal factors, cultural expectations, and differences in coping mechanisms may contribute to this gender difference.


Panic attacks can occur at any age, but they often first appear in late adolescence or early adulthood. However, panic attacks can also develop later in life, particularly during periods of significant stress or major life changes.

Other mental health disorders

Having a history of other mental health disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), increases the risk of experiencing panic attacks. These disorders can often co-occur and exacerbate anxiety symptoms.


There is a higher prevalence of panic attacks among smokers compared to non-smokers. Nicotine in cigarettes can alter brain chemistry and contribute to heightened anxiety levels, making individuals more susceptible to panic attacks.

Excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption

Consuming excessive amounts of caffeine or alcohol can trigger or worsen panic attacks. Caffeine is a stimulant that can increase heart rate and anxiety levels, while alcohol is a depressant that can disrupt brain chemistry and emotional regulation.

Lack of social support

A lack of strong social support systems can increase the risk of developing panic attacks. Feeling isolated or lacking emotional support can contribute to heightened stress levels and a sense of vulnerability, making individuals more susceptible to panic attacks.

History of physical or sexual abuse

Individuals who have experienced physical or sexual abuse have a higher likelihood of developing panic attacks. Traumatic experiences can have long-lasting effects on mental health and increase vulnerability to anxiety and panic symptoms.

Chronic illness

The presence of chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disorders, or chronic pain conditions, can contribute to the development of panic attacks. The physical symptoms associated with these conditions can trigger panic-like sensations and increase the risk of panic attacks.

Financial stress

Financial stressors, such as unemployment, debt, or financial instability, can significantly impact mental health and increase the risk of developing panic attacks. The uncertainty and pressure associated with financial difficulties can contribute to heightened anxiety levels.

How Do You Get Panic Attacks

Physical Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Heart palpitations

During a panic attack, you may experience rapid or irregular heartbeats, also known as heart palpitations. This sensation can be intense and give a feeling of impending doom.

Chest pain

Chest pain is a common symptom of panic attacks. It can vary in intensity and may feel like a crushing or squeezing sensation, often leading individuals to worry that they are having a heart attack.

Shortness of breath

Feeling like you can’t catch your breath or experiencing difficulty breathing is a hallmark symptom of panic attacks. It can lead to a sensation of suffocation or a fear of losing control.

Dizziness or lightheadedness

Panic attacks can cause a temporary drop in blood pressure, leading to dizziness or lightheadedness. This can be accompanied by feelings of unsteadiness or a fear of fainting.

Nausea or upset stomach

Many individuals experience gastrointestinal symptoms during panic attacks, such as nausea, stomach discomfort, or an upset stomach. These symptoms can mimic those of a stomach virus or food poisoning.

Trembling or shaking

Uncontrollable trembling or shaking of the body is a common physical symptom of panic attacks. It is often most noticeable in the hands and can be embarrassing for individuals experiencing panic attacks in public.


Profuse sweating is a physical response to a panic attack. This excessive sweating can occur even in cool or comfortable environments.

Chills or hot flashes

During a panic attack, some individuals may experience sudden temperature changes, such as chills or hot flashes. This can be a result of the body’s stress response.

Numbness or tingling sensations

A tingling or numbing sensation in the hands, feet, or other parts of the body can occur during a panic attack. This sensation may feel like pins and needles or a loss of sensation.

Feeling of choking

Some individuals may experience a sensation of choking or having a lump in their throat during panic attacks. This can lead to a fear of not being able to breathe or swallow properly.

Emotional and Cognitive Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Fear of losing control or going crazy

During a panic attack, there is often a prevalent fear of losing control or going crazy. Individuals may worry that they are losing touch with reality or that they are on the verge of a mental breakdown.

Intense fear of dying

The fear of dying is a common emotional symptom of panic attacks. The physical sensations experienced during an attack can be so distressing that individuals believe they are experiencing a life-threatening emergency.

Feeling detached from oneself or reality

A sense of detachment from oneself or a feeling of being disconnected from reality can occur during panic attacks. This symptom is often described as feeling like you are observing yourself from outside of your body.

Fear of having a heart attack or medical emergency

Given the intense physical sensations experienced during panic attacks, individuals often fear that they are having a heart attack or another severe medical condition. This fear can contribute to further anxiety and distress.

Feeling on edge or hyper-vigilant

Panic attacks can leave individuals feeling constantly on edge or hyper-vigilant. They may have an increased awareness of their surroundings and a heightened sensitivity to potential threats.

Feeling of impending doom

A pervasive feeling of impending doom or a sense that something terrible is about to happen is a cognitive symptom of panic attacks. This feeling may accompany the physical sensations as individuals anticipate further distress.

Feeling overwhelmed with panic

One of the defining cognitive symptoms of panic attacks is the feeling of being overwhelmed with panic. It can be challenging to think clearly or focus on anything other than the panic and its associated symptoms.

Difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly

During panic attacks, individuals often experience difficulties with concentration and clear thinking. Racing thoughts and intense anxiety can make it challenging to focus on tasks or make decisions.

Feeling helpless or out of control

A sense of helplessness and a loss of control are common emotional experiences during panic attacks. Individuals may feel powerless to manage or stop the panic and may become reliant on others for support.

Irrational thoughts or beliefs

Panic attacks can trigger irrational thoughts or beliefs, such as believing that you will never recover or that the panic will never end. These thoughts can be distressing and contribute to heightened anxiety levels.

How Do You Get Panic Attacks

Behavioral Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Avoiding triggering situations

Individuals who experience panic attacks may start to actively avoid situations or places that they associate with previous panic attacks. This avoidance behavior can lead to limitations in daily activities and reduced quality of life.

Escape or avoidance behaviors

When faced with a panic attack, some individuals may engage in escape or avoidance behaviors. They may leave a social event, exit a crowded space, or isolate themselves to minimize the risk of experiencing a panic attack.

Restlessness or agitation

Feeling restless or agitated can be a behavioral manifestation of panic attacks. It can be challenging to find comfort or calmness during an attack, leading to fidgeting or pacing.

Getting easily startled

Panic attacks can heighten sensitivity to stimuli, leading individuals to feel easily startled or alarmed. The body’s stress response can amplify reactions to external triggers, contributing to increased startle reactions.

Clinging to a trusted person

During a panic attack, individuals may seek comfort and reassurance from a trusted person. Clinging to someone they trust can provide a sense of safety and support during the distressing episode.

Crying or sobbing

Intense emotional distress during panic attacks can lead to crying or sobbing. This behavioral symptom reflects the overwhelming emotional experience that accompanies panic attacks.

Freezing or feeling paralyzed

For some individuals, panic attacks may result in a feeling of freezing or being unable to move. This behavioral response can be accompanied by a sense of paralysis or feeling stuck in the current situation.

Repetitive or compulsive behaviors

In an attempt to manage anxiety and regain a sense of control, individuals may engage in repetitive or compulsive behaviors during or following a panic attack. These behaviors can provide temporary relief but may contribute to the maintenance of the panic disorder.

Difficulty sleeping or insomnia

Panic attacks can disrupt sleep patterns and lead to difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep. The fear of experiencing a panic attack during sleep can contribute to insomnia and overall sleep disturbances.

Self-harming behaviors

In some cases, individuals who experience panic attacks may engage in self-harming behaviors as a maladaptive coping mechanism. These behaviors are often a reflection of deep emotional distress and an attempt to regulate overwhelming emotions.

Diagnosing Panic Attacks

Diagnostic criteria

In order to diagnose panic attacks, healthcare professionals refer to specific diagnostic criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). These criteria include the presence of recurrent and unexpected panic attacks, along with persistent worry about future attacks or significant behavioral changes related to avoiding panic-related situations.

Medical evaluation

To rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be causing or exacerbating panic attacks, a comprehensive medical evaluation is often conducted. This may include a review of medical history, physical examinations, and laboratory tests.

Psychological assessment

A thorough psychological assessment is essential in diagnosing panic attacks. This may involve interviews, self-report questionnaires, and assessments of symptoms and their impact on daily functioning.

Differentiating panic attacks from other disorders

It is important for healthcare professionals to differentiate panic attacks from other mental health disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This ensures that individuals receive an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Tracking symptoms and triggers

Tracking symptoms and identifying triggers can provide valuable information for diagnosing panic attacks. Individuals may be asked to keep a record of their panic attacks, including the date, time, duration, and any potential triggers or thoughts associated with the attacks.

Referral to specialists

In some cases, individuals may be referred to specialists, such as psychiatrists or psychologists, for a more in-depth assessment and diagnosis. These specialists have expertise in treating panic attacks and related disorders.

Complete physical examination

A complete physical examination is crucial in ruling out any medical conditions that may be causing or exacerbating panic attacks. This may include assessing vital signs, conducting neurological examinations, and evaluating cardiovascular health.

Laboratory tests

Laboratory tests, such as blood tests, may be conducted to rule out any underlying physical health conditions that may be contributing to panic attacks. These tests can help identify any abnormalities or imbalances that may warrant further investigation.

Imaging studies

In some cases, imaging studies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans, may be recommended to assess the structure and functioning of the brain. These studies can help rule out any organic causes of panic attacks.

Evaluation of overall mental health

Assessing an individual’s overall mental health is essential in diagnosing panic attacks. A comprehensive evaluation of their mental health history, including past experiences, traumas, and the presence of other mental health disorders, can provide important insights into the underlying causes and appropriate treatment options.

How Do You Get Panic Attacks

Treating Panic Attacks

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a widely used and effective treatment approach for panic attacks. It focuses on identifying and challenging negative thought patterns and beliefs that contribute to panic attacks, as well as developing healthier coping strategies.


In some cases, medication may be prescribed to help manage the symptoms of panic attacks. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), benzodiazepines, or other medications may be used to reduce anxiety levels and prevent the occurrence of panic attacks.

Relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery, can be helpful in managing panic attacks. These techniques promote relaxation and reduce physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety.

Breathing exercises

Focused breathing exercises, such as diaphragmatic breathing or box breathing, can help regulate breathing patterns and reduce the intensity of panic attack symptoms. These techniques promote relaxation and alleviate feelings of shortness of breath or hyperventilation.

Mindfulness-based techniques

Mindfulness-based techniques, such as mindfulness meditation or mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), can help individuals develop a non-judgmental awareness of their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. This can reduce distress and increase resilience in the face of panic attacks.

Exercise and physical activity

Engaging in regular exercise and physical activity can help reduce anxiety levels and improve overall mental well-being. Exercise promotes the release of endorphins, natural mood-boosting chemicals, and can serve as a healthy outlet for stress.

Support groups

Joining a support group or participating in group therapy can provide individuals with a sense of community and understanding. Sharing experiences and learning from others who have gone through similar struggles can be empowering and reassuring.

Stress management

Learning effective stress management techniques, such as time management, prioritization, and boundary-setting, can help individuals better cope with stressors that may trigger panic attacks. Stress reduction can play a significant role in preventing the occurrence of panic attacks.

Sleep hygiene

Establishing good sleep hygiene practices can contribute to overall mental well-being and reduce the risk of panic attacks. This includes maintaining a regular sleep schedule, creating a calming bedtime routine, and creating a sleep-conducive environment.


Psychoeducation plays a vital role in the treatment of panic attacks. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and triggers of panic attacks can help individuals develop a greater sense of control and make informed decisions about their treatment options.

Lifestyle Changes to Manage Panic Attacks

Maintaining a regular sleep schedule

Establishing a consistent sleep schedule can help regulate the body’s internal clock and promote better quality sleep. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day can improve sleep patterns and reduce the risk of panic attacks.

Reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption

Caffeine and alcohol can exacerbate anxiety and contribute to the occurrence of panic attacks. Limiting or avoiding these substances, especially in the evening, can help regulate anxiety levels and improve overall mental well-being.

Engaging in regular exercise

Regular physical exercise not only improves physical health but also has numerous mental health benefits. Engaging in activities such as jogging, yoga, or swimming can help reduce anxiety levels and minimize the risk of panic attacks.

Eating a balanced diet

Maintaining a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can contribute to overall well-being. Poor nutrition can have a negative impact on mental health and may increase the vulnerability to panic attacks.

Limiting exposure to stressors

Identifying and minimizing exposure to stressors can be beneficial in managing panic attacks. This may involve setting boundaries, saying no to excessive commitments, and creating a supportive environment that promotes emotional well-being.

Avoiding triggers

Identifying and avoiding triggers that may precipitate panic attacks is important in managing the condition. This may involve avoiding certain situations, substances, or activities that have been associated with panic attacks in the past.

Practicing relaxation techniques regularly

Regularly incorporating relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation, into your routine can help reduce anxiety levels and prevent the onset of panic attacks.

Establishing a support network

Surrounding yourself with supportive individuals and establishing a strong support network can provide a sense of security and reassurance during times of distress. Trusted friends, family members, or support groups can offer understanding and encouragement.

Learning to manage anxiety

Learning effective anxiety management techniques, such as cognitive restructuring or mindfulness, can help individuals better manage anxiety symptoms and reduce the risk of panic attacks. These techniques focus on changing negative thought patterns and developing healthier coping strategies.

Engaging in enjoyable activities

Participating in activities that bring joy and relaxation can help alleviate stress and promote overall mental well-being. Engaging in hobbies, spending time in nature, or practicing creative outlets can serve as healthy distractions from anxious thoughts and reduce the likelihood of panic attacks.

Tips for Coping with Panic Attacks

Recognize and accept the panic attack

When experiencing a panic attack, it is crucial to recognize and accept the reality of the situation. Acknowledge that it is a temporary episode and that it will eventually pass.

Focus on slow, deep breathing

Concentrating on slow, deep breathing can help regulate the body’s stress response and reduce the intensity of panic symptoms. Inhale slowly through the nose, hold the breath briefly, and exhale slowly through the mouth.

Challenge irrational thoughts

During a panic attack, irrational thoughts and beliefs can intensify anxiety. Challenge these thoughts by asking yourself if they are based on evidence or if they are exaggerations. Replace irrational thoughts with more realistic and balanced thinking.

Use grounding techniques

Grounding techniques can help individuals reconnect with the present moment and reduce anxiety during a panic attack. Focus on sensory experiences, such as touching a textured object, listening to soothing music, or counting objects in the environment.

Engage in self-care activities

Prioritize self-care activities that promote relaxation and well-being. This can include taking a warm bath, engaging in gentle exercise, practicing mindfulness, or engaging in hobbies that bring joy or contentment.

Reach out for support

Reaching out to trusted individuals for support during and after panic attacks can provide comfort and reassurance. Share your experiences with loved ones or seek professional help if needed.

Create a panic attack coping plan

Developing a coping plan in advance can help individuals feel more prepared and empowered during panic attacks. Identify strategies and techniques that have been helpful in the past and write them down for easy reference.

Practice relaxation exercises regularly

Regularly practicing relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery, can help individuals build resilience and reduce anxiety levels over time.

Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs

Alcohol and recreational drugs can exacerbate anxiety symptoms and trigger panic attacks. It is important to avoid these substances to ensure optimal mental well-being and reduce the risk of panic attacks.

Educate yourself about panic attacks

Learning about panic attacks and their causes can help demystify the experience and reduce fear and anxiety. Educate yourself about the various treatment options available and seek accurate information from reputable sources.

When to Seek Professional Help

Frequent and severe panic attacks

If you are experiencing frequent and severe panic attacks that significantly impact your daily life and functioning, it is crucial to seek professional help. Treatment options are available that can help manage and reduce the occurrence of panic attacks.

Interference with daily functioning

When panic attacks interfere with your ability to carry out daily activities, such as work, school, or relationships, it is advisable to seek professional help. Mental health professionals can provide appropriate interventions and support.

Development of agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is a common complication of panic disorder, characterized by a fear of being in situations or places that may be challenging to escape from or where help may not be readily available. If agoraphobia develops, seeking professional help is necessary to address the underlying anxiety and phobias.

Co-occurring mental health disorders

If you have co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression or substance use disorders, along with panic attacks, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional who can address the complexity of your symptoms and provide comprehensive treatment.

Suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviors

If you experience suicidal thoughts or engage in self-harming behaviors, it is essential to seek immediate professional help. Reach out to a mental health helpline or a healthcare provider who can provide the necessary support and resources.

Lack of improvement with self-help strategies

If self-help strategies have not been effective in reducing the frequency or severity of panic attacks, it may be necessary to seek professional help. A mental health professional can provide additional guidance, interventions, and support.

Worsening symptoms over time

If your symptoms have been progressively worsening over time, it is important to consult with a mental health professional. They can assess the underlying causes and determine appropriate treatment options to address your evolving symptoms.

Loss of quality of life

If panic attacks have significantly impacted your quality of life and overall well-being, seeking professional help is crucial. A mental health professional can work with you to develop an individualized treatment plan to alleviate distress and improve your overall functioning.

Inability to manage triggers or stress

If you find yourself unable to manage triggers or stressors that often lead to panic attacks, professional help can provide guidance and support. Learning effective coping strategies and stress management techniques can reduce the impact of triggers on your mental health.

Reliance on substances to cope

If you find yourself relying on substances, such as alcohol or drugs, to cope with panic attacks, it is important to seek professional help. Substance abuse can further exacerbate anxiety symptoms and impede progress towards managing panic attacks.