At present, the exact cause of panic disorder is unclear. However, when examining the underlying causes of panic disorder, there are several theories that consider different factors. Read ahead to learn more about the biological theory of panic disorder.
The biological theory of panic disorder
Serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are chemicals that act as neurotransmitters or messengers in the brain. They send information between different areas of the brain and are thought to affect a person’s mood and anxiety level. One theory of panic disorder is that symptoms are caused by an imbalance in one or more of these chemicals.
This theory is called the biological theory of panic disorder, and it examines biological factors as the cause of mental health problems. The support for this theory is that when antidepressants that change brain chemicals are introduced, the panic symptoms experienced by many patients are reduced.
Antidepressants for panic disorder
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Paxil (paroxetine), Prozac (fluoxetine), and Zoloft (sertraline) work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) such as Effexor (venlafaxine) and Cymbalta (duloxetine) act on both serotonin and norepinephrine.
- Tricyclic antidepressants (TCA) (such as Anafranil (clomipramine) and Elavil (amitriptyline)) affect serotonin, norepinephrine, and to a lesser extent dopamine.
- Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) (such as Nardil, Parnate) can inhibit the breakdown of neurotransmitters (such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine).
Additional support for biological theory
In addition to panic disorder response to biochemical changes caused by antidepressants, there is further evidence that underlying biochemical changes in the brain may cause panic disorder, including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and metabolic theory.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
It is believed that GABA is a chemical in the brain that regulates anxiety. GABA counteracts excitement in the brain by inducing relaxation and suppressing anxiety. Research shows that GABA may play a role in many mental health problems, including anxiety and mood disorders.
Anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines) such as Xanax (alprazolam), Ativan (lorazepam) or Klonopin (clonazepam) work because they target the brain GABA receptors. These drugs can enhance the function of GABA, so that people are in a state of calm and relaxation.
In several studies, GABA levels in patients with panic disorder were lower than controls without a history of panic disorder. In order to better understand the role of GABA in mental health disorders, future research may improve patient drug choices.
Metabolic Theory and Panic Disorder
Metabolism research focuses on how the body processes specific substances. Many of these studies have shown that patients with panic disorder are more sensitive to certain substances than those with non-panic disorder. Such observations further support the biological theory and prove that people with panic disorder may have a different composition than people without this disease.
For example, patients with panic disorder can trigger panic attacks by injecting lactic acid, which is a substance naturally produced by the body during muscle activity.
Other studies have shown that breathing air with elevated carbon dioxide levels can trigger panic attacks in people with this disease. Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol are also considered triggers for panic disorder patients.
What does it mean?
Despite the impact of research so far, there are no clear laboratory findings that can help diagnose panic disorder. The chemical messengers in the brain and metabolic processes are complex and interact. Perhaps each of these theories has a specific importance in the development of panic disorder. Future research needs to further describe the biological causes of panic disorder and link them.
Many experts currently agree that panic disorder is caused by a combination of multiple factors. The research also supports theories that take into account factors such as human genetics and environmental influences. Researchers continue to look for the causes of mental health conditions, such as panic disorder, because it helps diagnose and determine the best treatment options.
Although understanding how biochemical processes cause panic disorder is not very helpful in diagnosing panic disorder, this knowledge may be particularly helpful for those who are unwilling to take medication to improve their symptoms.
The same is true for many other mental health conditions. Mental illness has always been stigmatized, and people still believe that a person should be able to overcome diseases such as panic disorder by himself.
Looking at our understanding of the biochemical and metabolic theory of panic disorder, this mode of thinking is similar to saying that someone should overcome appendicitis through a positive attitude.