Is Panic Disorder Caused by a Chemical Imbalance?

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You may have heard that mental health conditions are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, but what exactly does that mean? Research has shown that imbalanced brain chemicals can contribute to mood and anxiety disorders, but the exact cause of panic disorder remains unknown. The following describes the chemical imbalance theory and other potential factors that may influence the development of panic disorder.

The “Chemical Imbalance” Theory for Panic Disorder

According to biological theories, panic disorder symptoms can be attributed to chemical imbalances in the brain. Naturally occurring chemical messengers, known as neurotransmitters, send information throughout the brain. The human brain is thought to have hundreds of these different types of neurotransmitters, and biological theories suggest that a person can become more susceptible to developing panic disorder symptoms if one or more of these neurotransmitters do not remain balanced.

The neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) are specifically believed to be linked to mood and anxiety disorders. These neurotransmitters are in charge of regulating various body functions and emotions.

First, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is largely associated with mood, sleep, appetite, and other regulatory functions in the body. Experts have also found that reduced levels of serotonin are connected to depression and anxiety.

The neurotransmitter dopamine may also contribute to symptoms. Dopamine influences, among other functions, a person’s energy levels, attention, rewards, and movement, which may lead to anxiety symptoms if imbalanced. Norepinephrine is also related to anxiety as it involves the fight-or-flight response, or how a person reacts to stress. Last, GABA plays a role in balancing excitement or agitation and feelings of calm and relaxation.

Other Theories

Separate yet common theories about the causes of panic disorder look at the possibility of genetic or environmental influences. Genetic theories are based on the solid evidence of the familial link of panic disorder.

Six controlled studies show a 5.7 to 17.3 percent increased risk of PD when a relative who also suffers from this condition.

Other theories look at environmental factors, such as one’s upbringing or current life stressors, as key influencers in the development of panic disorder.

For instance, problems in childhood, such as being raised by overprotective and anxious parents, attachment issues, and experiences of abuse or neglect, may impact a person later in life. Experiencing difficult life stressors and transitions, including grief and loss or other major life changes, can also affect a person’s wellbeing and vulnerability to developing a mental health condition.

A Combination of Influences

Currently, most professionals who treat panic disorder rely on a multidimensional theory to understand the causes of panic and anxiety symptoms. This theory is based on the notion that a combination of factors leads to the development of panic disorder, meaning that a chemical imbalance may be partly to blame. Other influences, such as genetics and environmental factors, also likely play a role in a person’s experience with panic disorder.

If you are considering treatment options, your doctor or therapist may follow a treatment approach that addresses multidimensional factors. Early detection and diagnosis will be important in getting you on the right treatment plan for your particular needs.

The most common treatment options for panic disorder include medication, psychotherapy, and self-help strategies.

Medications, such as antidepressants and benzodiazepines, may be prescribed to bring equilibrium back to your neurotransmitters. Psychotherapy may help with dealing with past hurts, getting through life challenges, and overcoming negative thoughts and behaviors. Self-help techniques can promote relaxation, stress management, and getting through anxiety on a day-by-day basis.

Your doctor or therapist will most likely recommend a combination of these treatment options to assist in managing your condition. Although the exact cause of panic disorder is still unknown, treatment is available that can help in managing all of the possible influences causing your panic disorder symptoms.

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Additional Reading
  • American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. Washington, DC: Author.

  • Bourne, E. J. (2011). The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. 5th ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.