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Therapists explain common causes of panic disorder

by Sarah Graham
Monday 13 April 2015
1224 23357

Panic disorder is a form of anxiety, which manifests itself through physical panic attacks. As Registered Psychologist Wilhelmina Van Vuuren explains: "Anxiety, which is natural and an often very useful emotion, can escalate into panic symptoms or a panic disorder where you experience intense and overwhelming symptoms, often physically, for a brief period. At the time, you may feel like you are perhaps having a heart attack because of chest pain or breathing difficulties, or you may fear that they will faint, or ‘lose control'." As with other forms of anxiety, there is no one particular cause of panic disorder, but we asked RSCPP therapists to explain some of the most common causes.

A fear of expressing feelings

Therapist: Chartered Psychologist Dr. Anthony Theuninck
Panic attacks are an extreme anxiety response to a perceived threat. Modern life involves finding your place in society in a way that allows you to thrive individually, as well as enjoy connection and belonging. This requires you to know your desires. But what you desire and what other people want sometimes differ; you have to adapt to each other. What if you tend to adapt to others by suppressing your feelings and prioritising what other people want? One day you fall in love with a partner who truly loves you, but you are not used to asserting yourself and your partner is not perfect. You may feel angry at times, but you are unfamiliar with prioritising your feelings and knowing how to express anger constructively. When anger starts bubbling to the surface, your anxiety rises. In stressful times you may have a full scale panic attack as you struggle to repress your anger, or become terrified of lashing out and ruining a good relationship. You are panicked by your anger as a threat to the harmony of your otherwise loving relationship. In such instances, unlearning your self-repression and learning to express your feelings constructively will bring relief from panic attacks.
Chartered Psychologist Dr. Anthony Theuninck


Feeling unable to cope with stress or pressure

A number of issues can bring on panic, such as severe stress or pressure, or feeling you are unable to cope with your circumstances. Relationship difficulties where you feel trapped or unsafe, physically or emotionally, or controlled, can bring on panic, and a feeling of not being able to get things 'right' continually, or being unable to please a partner can also contribute to panic symptoms.


Traumatic life events

Therapist: Registered Counsellor Linda Newbold
Trauma is the result of an extraordinarily stressful event, which shatters your sense of security, making you feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world. Some people manage the effects of traumatic events on their own or with the help of their loved ones; many others do not. If your brain is functioning in a healthy way, it is able to process and make sense of an event after a few weeks. Often however, the event is so overwhelming that the brain cannot cope and the information processing part of the brain ceases to function. Some elements of an event (memory images, emotions and/or body sensations) get split off from the rational thinking part of the brain, and remain stored in the body-mind. These can re-surface at any time in the future (days or decades) when inadvertently triggered by a similar, but often innocent, trigger, such as an external event or even just the way someone looks. Often the re-surfacing of the memories or feelings take the form of flashbacks, nightmares or panic reactions as the body attempts to process the unconsciously stored part of the memory.
Registered Counsellor Linda Newbold


Genetic or chemical factors

Genetic or chemical factors may also make you more predisposed to developing panic disorder, such as if a family member has the condition, or if there is a chemical imbalance of neurotransmitters in your brain. You may also be more likely to develop panic disorder if you are prone to extreme or 'catastrophic' thinking.

Finding support

You can find out more about symptoms and causes of Panic Disorder, including how to find a therapist. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

Find a Therapist working with Panic Disorder

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Updated 13 April 2015