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What is the Relationship Between Stress and Panic Attacks?

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  • Written By: Page Coleman
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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Stress and panic attacks are two mental health conditions that frequently affect the same individuals. Stress can cause changes in brain chemistry, which may make individuals susceptible to panic attacks. Nutrition, stress-reduction techniques, prescription medications, and psychotherapy can be used to treat those who suffer from stress and panic attacks.

For people who are prone to panic attacks, various stressors may trigger a single attack or recurrent panic attacks. The stressor may be physical or mental, and can be caused by a traumatic life event, such as a divorce or death of a loved one, or by daily situations such as poor sleep, inadequate nutrition, workplace stress, and school anxiety. Long term stress is usually more damaging than short term stress.

Stress of any sort may contribute to panic attacks in several ways. It may cause a release of the neurotransmitter known as adrenaline, which triggers the fight-or-flight response. If this occurs too frequently, the brain’s ability to manage adrenaline may become damaged, and panic attacks may arise. Panic attacks can lead to agoraphobia, or a fear of open spaces. People who have had several panic attacks and who feel threatened by the possibility of more attacks may develop panic disorder, which is a chronic condition.

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Long term, ongoing stress may affect the balance between the brain’s neurotransmitters that calm the nervous system and those that excite it. Stress can exhaust supplies of two critical calming neurotransmitters. These two neurotransmitters are serotonin and GABA. Low levels of calming neurotransmitters may cause a person to feel anxious.

Stress can also cause levels of magnesium, Vitamin C, and tryptophan to diminish. Adequate levels of these nutrients are important in helping the body cope with the effects of stress. Subsequently, increasing consumption of these nutrients may reduce the frequency or intensity of panic attack episodes.

Prescription medications may be used to treat people who are susceptible to stress and panic attacks. Medications that are used to treat stress include some of the antidepressants in the serotonin selective reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) family. These encourage higher levels of serotonin, and in turn work as anti-anxiety treatments as well as depression treatments.

Psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, is often very effective in treating stress and panic attacks. This treatment may be paired with medications to increase its effectiveness. In addition to psychotherapy and medications, stress management techniques can be important in improving treatment outcomes for this anxiety disorder.

Some of the stress management techniques that may reduce stress include deep breathing, yoga, and other exercise. Caffeine may trigger feelings of anxiety and stress. Consequently, panic attack sufferers may wish reduce or quit the use of beverages and foods containing caffeine, such as coffee and chocolate. A well-balanced and healthy diet may also assist with reducing the severity and frequency of stress and panic attacks.

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