We all face stressful moments. For most of us, these moments aren’t necessarily fun, but we get through them without too much trouble. Others experience full-blown panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden burst of anxiety. It often feels like a heart attack. Your heart begins to race, you become shaky, and you have the overwhelming urge to flee. It might feel as if you’re going crazy; you sweat, become nauseated, and your mind races. If you’re having panic attacks on a regular basis, you could have panic disorder.

If everyone has moments of high stress, why do some develop panic disorder while others do not? There are certain risk factors that increase the likelihood that you will experience panic disorder.

The Gender Factor

Women are twice as likely as men to develop panic disorder. The reason could be that the female hormone estrogen is closely linked to the brain chemicals that control mood. Women regularly experience hormonal shifts, making them more sensitive to stress, and panic attacks are often triggered by a heightened stress response. Men develop panic disorder as well, but they are less likely to seek treatment.

Family History

Family history is always a risk factor for any emotional disorder. If someone in your family has suffered from panic disorder, you’re much more likely to have the same problem. The exact reasons for this are unclear, though. Our genes help determine our temperament, and there could be a genetic link that causes the heightened sensitivity to stress that leads to panic disorder.

Family is also an environmental influence. We learn how to act from the people around us. If someone in your immediate family suffered from panic disorder while you were growing up, you might have learned that the world is a scary place and it’s impossible to control your emotional responses to stress.

Temperament and Triggers

Panic disorder usually begins between the ages of 15 and 24. It is believed that those who develop panic disorder have a temperament that makes them more sensitive to the negative effects of stress. At some point, a traumatic or stressful event triggers this sensitivity, bringing on a panic attack. After an individual has experienced one panic attack, the likelihood of experiencing repeated panic attacks and developing panic disorder are greatly increased.

What you think and believe determines how sensitive you are to stress. Temperament is partially influenced by genetics and partially influenced by the environment in which you were raised. If you were raised by nervous, anxious, and panicky parents, you’re more likely to take on that temperament as well. If you then experience a highly stressful event, you’re at greater risk for a panic attack and panic disorder.

Understanding the causes of panic disorder helps us understand how to treat the problem. If you or someone you love is experiencing panic disorder, there is help available. It’s important that you speak with a doctor to find out whether or not you’re suffering with panic disorder and, if you are, point out the appropriate treatment options for you.

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