Let's talk about Panic Attacks

What are panic attacks?

Panic attacks are episodes of intense fear with many physical symptoms. They can be triggered by certain situations or they can seem to occur out of the blue. They are caused by an activation of the body’s fight-or-flight response when there isn’t anything immediately dangerous happening. Often, panic attacks start happening during especially stressful times in life.

Panic attacks are common. Up to 1 in 3 people will experience one in their lifetime. If panic attacks are frequent and continue over time, they may be diagnosed as panic disorder. Panic attacks can also occur as a symptom of other anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental health conditions.

Person experiencing a panic attack next to a brain that is surrounded by icons representing symptoms including a sense of danger or fear, and a pounding or racing heart.

What are the symptoms of panic attacks?

Panic attacks can have many symptoms, including:

  • Sense of danger or impending doom
  • Fear of losing control or dying
  • Pounding or racing heart
  • Hyperventilation (rapid, shallow breathing)
  • Nausea or abdominal cramping
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Chest pain
  • Sweating
  • In addition, people who have had panic attacks can develop a persistent fear of experiencing another one. This can negatively impact quality of life, if individuals avoid situations or places where panic attacks have occurred in the past.

Sometimes panic attack symptoms can resemble symptoms of other health problems, including heart attacks. If you have new or concerning symptoms, talk to a healthcare professional to evaluate what could be causing them. A healthcare professional can also help find a treatment plan that’s right for you and connect you to support like counseling.

Are panic attacks genetic?

The likelihood of experiencing panic attacks is impacted by many factors, both non-genetic and genetic. Some people may be more likely to experience panic attacks than others, depending on their genetics. A tendency to have panic attacks can run in families, which means that a person has an increased chance of having panic attacks if family members have a history of them. A combination of many different genetic variants impact a person’s chances of experiencing panic attacks. Individually, each of these variants only has a small impact on a person’s genetic likelihood, but that impact can grow when many variants are considered together. 23andMe takes into account more than 6,700 genetic markers to estimate the likelihood of having experienced panic attacks. 

The chances of having panic attacks is also impacted by non-genetic factors. Non-genetic factors that can increase this likelihood include:

  • Age—panic attacks are more common in younger adults
  • Experiencing major life stress or traumatic events, like the death of a loved one
  • Having a family history of panic attacks or panic disorder
  • Certain mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders and PTSD
  • A history of trauma or abuse in early life

What are some ways to manage panic attacks?

There are healthy lifestyle habits that can lower overall anxiety levels, which in turn can reduce the chances of having a panic attack. Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, can be grounding and relieve anxiety, as can relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga. It can also be helpful to regularly practice breathing techniques like box breathing, where you fill your lungs while slowly counting to four, hold your breath for four counts, exhale completely for four counts, and hold for four counts. Then repeat the steps a few more times. In addition, it’s recommended to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco, which can trigger panic attacks for people who are prone to them.

If you do find yourself having a panic attack, there are some steps you can take in the moment to get through it more easily.

  • Slow down your breathing. Use the breathing exercises you’ve practiced, like box breathing, to quickly help counteract hyperventilation and calm the fight-or-flight response.
  • Try to stay put. Waiting for the panic attack to subside, rather than leaving the situation that triggered it, allows your nervous system to learn the situation is safe.
  • Ride it out. Remember that panic attacks usually subside within 5-20 minutes.
  • When it’s over, you might feel tired. Take some time to rest and recharge.

If you have any concerns or are experiencing signs of anxiety like panic attacks, please reach out to a loved one or a healthcare professional like a primary care provider, clinical psychologist, mental health counselor, or genetic counselor.

Learn more about panic attacks

Curious whether you have an increased likelihood of experiencing panic attacks based on your genetics? Find out more with the Panic Attacks report (Powered by 23andMe Research), part of the 23andMe+ Premium membership. 23andMe+ Premium includes our Health + Ancestry Service plus new premium reports and features throughout the year. 

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Please note:

  • This report does not diagnose panic attacks or any mental health conditions and should not be used to make medical decisions.
  • The report was developed by 23andMe scientists using data and insights gathered from thousands of customers who consent to participate in our research. Reports based on 23andMe research provide an estimate of your likelihood of having been diagnosed with a condition based on your genetics and other factors. This report does not account for life experiences or family history.
  • The report does not account for every possible genetic variant that could affect your likelihood of having panic attacks.


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