What Causes Panic Attacks?

Your heart is beating fast and your breathing is strained. You can’t stop the thoughts racing through your mind. The temperature in your body keeps fluctuating, and your limbs are shaking. You might even feel dizzy or nauseous. Or, in extreme cases, you might feel like you’re going to die. These are the symptoms of a panic attack, your body’s response to extreme stress or anxiety. But what causes this reaction? What leads to this level of anxiety and panic? While it’s not always clear what the cause of a panic attack is, here are some potential triggers or catalysts.


When we feel stress or danger (which all of these situations can lead to), our body produces what is known as “adrenaline,” which is sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight hormone.” Adrenaline creates a lot of the symptoms we see in panic attacks. Mix this together with poor coping strategies and they can become like a pressure cooker, with a panic attack occurring as everything bubbles over. Learning how to deal with stress in a positive, healthy and timely way is one way that you can prevent a panic attack.

Major Life Transition

Sometimes, there are changes or stresses in our lives that are difficult to handle. We can become overwhelmed and not know how to cope with our rushing thoughts or feelings. Perhaps there is excessive pressure from school with assignments, finals, presentations and college applications all piling up. Maybe there are challenges at home with family fights, a parent’s divorce or ongoing disagreements with siblings. Personal health issues, extreme struggles with friends, living with another mental health condition or trying to understand your identity can all be significant and overwhelming.


Image Son of Groucho


Your genetic makeup can also be cause for a panic disorder. Anxiety tends to run in families, so if someone else in your family struggles with it, there is a chance you might too. Furthermore, abnormalities in the brain and the areas that control the “fight or flight” responses in us can also lead to an anxiety disorder or panic attacks.

Other Medical Conditions

In rare cases, panic attacks and the symptoms associated with them can actually be caused by another medical condition. Some of these may include cardiac problems, hyperthyroidism, hypoglycemia, withdrawal and stimulant use. This is why it’s extremely important to contact a medical professional to rule this out, or otherwise seek help from a mental health professional to get the appropriate help and support you need.