The Many Causes of Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder is hereditary, though studies of identical twins show that not everyone who inherits a predisposition for it will go on to develop symptoms. This means that heredity is not the only cause of the disorder.

Childhood Circumstances and Parenting Styles can Contribute

Childhood trauma and negative patterns of thinking can contribute to panic disorder.  Photo: Hortongrou,

Childhood trauma and negative patterns of thinking can contribute to panic disorder. Photo: Hortongrou,

Certain childhood circumstances are usually present in people who eventually develop Panic Disorder. Some patients have experienced:

  • childhood trauma, neglect, or abandonment;
  • parental alcoholism;
  • loss of a parent due to death or divorce.

Even if a person’s childhood was perfectly happy, uneventful, and “normal”, certain parenting styles can contribute to Panic Disorder. Some of these parenting styles are fairly commonplace:

  • parents who have too-high standards and expectations for their children;
  • perfectionistic or overly critical parents;
  • parents who are overly fearful and anxious;
  • parents who, either consciously or unconsciously, try to suppress their children’s efforts to gain mastery and assert themselves.

Cumulative Stress Over Time

It is thought that if the hereditary factor and one or more childhood circumstances are in place, people who experience cumulative stress over time may go on to develop Panic Disorder. The cumulative stress over time might be caused by a series of actual stressful life events, occurring in close proximity to each other.

But even in the absence of stressful life circumstances, cumulative stress over time can be caused by certain personality styles or patterns of thinking. Perfectionism is one example. People with this personality style may not even realize that they are under stress, because this is simply the way they have always been. They don’t realize that their thoughts are negative and stress-inducing to the degree that they actually are.

The Panic “Trigger” vs. the Cause of Panic Disorder

Usually there is a stressful life event that precedes a person’s first panic attack, like a move, a marriage, a new job, surgery, or a death. Like the straw that broke the camel’s back, this event is seen as a panic trigger, not a cause. For example, a new job itself doesn’t cause Panic Disorder or panic attacks. But if the hereditary factor and childhood circumstances are in place, and stress has accumulated and built up over time, the stress of a new job can perhaps trigger an attack of panic.

Not everyone who has a panic attack will go on to develop Panic Disorder. However, early treatment of panic attacks is a good idea in order to prevent complications  like the development of phobias, including agoraphobia (fear of panic attacks.)

When viewing the causes of Panic Disorder in this way, it becomes clear that the development of Panic Disorder is not much different than many other health conditions in which stress plays a role. And like many other health concerns, this disorder can be successfully treated.

Comprehensive Treatment Is Best

Since there are a number of contributing factors, treating Panic Disorder involves a comprehensive approach that addresses each contributing factor.  Medications combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy with a Panic Disorder treatment specialist usually yield very positive results, though many people are more successfully treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy without ever taking medication.

Anyone experiencing troubling symptoms should consult a medical or mental health professional. This article is for general information only and is not intended to be personal mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment.
©Lisa C. DeLuca, all rights reserved.  It is a violation of copyright law to reproduce this work on the web or for profit without written permission from the author. This article was originally published on the web in 2008. Please contact the author for permission.

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