Are There Risk Factors for Developing Panic Disorder?

Identifying Panic Disorder Risk Factors

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, panic disorder affects approximately 6 million American adults over the age of 18 in any given year. This translates to about 2.7% of the adult population in the United States. Studies and statistics that have compared individuals with panic disorder and those without have concluded that there may be certain risk factors associated with PD development.

Definition of a Panic Disorder “Risk Factor”

It’s important to note that having a risk factor associated with any disease or illness does not necessarily mean that factor is the “cause” of the illness. Risk factors are generally correlational. In other words, an identified risk factor would mean there is evidence to suggest some degree of relationship between a certain feature and an outcome. For example, let’s look at the following:

Panic disorder typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood. This would indicate a correlation between age and panic disorder (you are more likely to develop panic disorder if you are between the ages of 18 and 25). Age, however, is not the cause of PD.

What Are the Risk Factors Associated With Panic Disorder?

Gender -- Women are twice as likely to get panic disorder as men. The exact reason for this discrepancy is not known, but some experts theorize that hormonal and/or social influences may play a part.

Age -- Panic disorder typically develops in late adolescence to early adulthood. However, it can occur during childhood or in middle or late adulthood.

Personality Type -- There is some evidence to suggest that children with anxious personality types are at greater risk for developing an anxiety disorder in adulthood.

A temperamental style associated with passiveness and an excessive avoidance of trying new things or exposing one's self to the unfamiliar have also been indicated as possible contributing risk factors in the development of panic disorder.

Family Upbringing and Environment -- Some studies have shown that parents who are anxious may model this anxious behavior to their children. Overprotective parenting styles and high levels of stress in the home during upbringing may also contribute to the development of anxiety leading to panic disorder.

Family History -- Individuals with a first-degree biological relative (mother, father or sibling) with panic disorder are 8 times more likely to develop the condition. If the family history includes first-line relatives who develop the disorder before age 20, the risk is even greater. Studies of identical twins also show a genetic connection, as both twins are more likely to develop the disorder.

Stressful Life Events -- Some experts believe that stressful environmental factors may trigger panic disorder in some people.

These factors may include major transitional events such as leaving home for the first time, divorce, career change, illness or the death of a family member or friend. Other stressful triggers may include family problems, financial issues, work problems or interpersonal conflicts.

The symptoms of panic disorder can be frightening and potentially disabling. But, the vast majority of sufferers will find significant relief with treatment. The sooner treatment begins after the onset of panic disorder, the more quickly symptom reduction or elimination will be realized. However, even those with long-term symptoms will generally experience improvement with treatment.


Kaplan MD, Harold I. and Sadock MD, Benjamin J. "Synopsis of Psychiatry, Eighth Edition" 1998 Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

National Institute of Mental Health. Panic Disorder. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. 2006.

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