What is Panic? The Symptoms and Causes of Panic Attacks

Panic is defined as:

‘A sudden unexpected surge of anxiety which makes you want to leave a worrying situation.’

Not every anxiety sufferer will experience panic attacks, but they still remain a common symptom.

Panic attacks usually come without warning, and although the fear is generally irrational, the perception of danger is very real. A person experiencing a panic attack will often feel as if he or she is about to die or pass out. Severe panic attacks can be confused with heart attacks.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

  • Excessive sweating
  • A feeling of sudden dread
  • An overwhelming need to escape the situation
  • Tightening of the chest
  • Rapid breathing – Hyper-ventilation
  • Feeling that you cannot breathe
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Irrational thought brought on by panic

The Causes of Panic Attacks

What causes these attacks has been researched and explored for a significant amount of time. There are several theories and ideas about some of the root causes of these episodes. Such proposed causes are addictions, brain abnormalities, real-life stress, and genetics.

Attacks can also be triggered by phobias. A phobia is a fear of a situation or thing that is not dangerous and which most people don’t find troublesome.


As far as a genetic explanation goes, research has been undertaken to determine if there is a possibility that the likelihood to suffer from panic attacks can be passed genetically, from parent to child. The question of whether this disorder can be identified in an individuals genetic code and whether it would be an abnormality, or present in every member of a family, remains unanswered.

Brain Abnormalities

This in itself sounds quite worrying, but the title is not insinuating an actual physical abnormality, rather an abnormality in certain brain functions and processes.

Sufferers of inappropriate anxiety, stress, depression and panic disorder could have a condition which is stored and activated by a small organ in the brain. This organ, called the Amygdala is responsible for activating the anxiety response, which becomes re-set at a higher level in anxiety and panic related disorders.

Everyday Stress

Environmental, cultural and social factors undoubtedly play a part in an individuals anxiety levels. These factors could be partly responsible for creating a panic episode.

A bad situation at work, relationship worries or social situations can easily trigger a panic episode if the individual concerned is prone to the condition and the particular circumstance has caused anxiety on a previous occasion.

Addiction and Substance Abuse

Alcohol and drugs are known to create an environment susceptible to anxiety and panic attacks. The effect of these substances on the body and brains chemical and physical responses can be detrimental to a person pre-disposed to anxiety. These substances encourage irrational thought and reaction to situations and will certainly elevate anxiety levels in a stressful situation.

Alcohol and many drugs are depressants and play havoc with the brains chemical stability – one minute there can be a high, followed by a crashing low. People using either of these toxins are likely to see a situation as much worse than it really is, and a lot worse that a person not using either of these substances would see it.

Anxiety and panic will be a lot higher when combined with alcohol or drugs, and especially in times of substance withdrawal.