Feeling Anxious and Panicky - Exploring Causes

written by Dr Rabin Gonzaga on 25 December 2005


Exploring causes
WHAT causes anxiety and panic attacks? The theories behind the causes can essentially be divided into biological (physical) and psychological. The causes of both anxiety and panic attacks are roughly similar, with a few differences.
The biological theories implicate a physical cause and this is confirmed by genetic studies. Studies show that there is a greater incidence of anxiety disorders and panic attacks in relatives of sufferers. This is supported by twin studies in which the incidence of anxiety and panic are studied in identical twins that have been reared apart.
Identical twins are genetically identical, so it is assumed that they carry the same propensity for the development of illnesses. It is shown that there is a higher incidence of these disorders in twins reared apart, implying that a physical/genetic cause is likely. It is important to note that the mode of transmission of these disorders (genetically) is not straightforward, i.e. if an individual suffers from an anxiety disorder, it does not automatically follow that their children are going to inherit the disorder. The mode of transmission of the disorder is dependent on multiple factors.
Other physical causes include deficiencies in the utilisation of neurotransmitters and their receptors in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain that pass messages from one nerve cell to another. Receptors are where the neurotransmitters bind in order to carry out their function. The main neurotransmitters implicated in the development of anxiety and panic disorders are noradrenalin and serotonin. There are other neurotransmitters involved but their role is not fully understood and most of the research that has been done involves the above mentioned neurotransmitters.
Various areas of the brain are implicated in these disorders, where neural circuits (a series of connecting nerve cells) are involved in areas of the brain, namely the limbic system (control of emotions), temporal and frontal lobes of the brain. Most of these areas of the brain have been studied using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans.
Some of the psychological factors implicated in the development of anxiety/panic are early childhood experiences such as separation experiences, emotional trauma when young and unsupportive or overprotective environments. Other factors are dysfunctional patterns of thinking, such as “catastrophic thinking”, negative thinking patterns, poor coping skills, low self-esteem and self-confidence.
Learning theories are also important in the genesis of anxiety/panic symptoms, for example, children imitating anxiety symptoms in parents. Classical conditioning theories are also important. For example, the fear and anxiety surrounding new/unknown situations may be reflected by the association of earlier feelings/thoughts with previous experiences that may have turned out unfavourably. Subsequently, anxiety develops and is matched to other situations that are similar in nature, and if this occurs often enough, becomes a regular feature.