How Are Suicide and Panic Attacks Linked?

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Panic attacks are bouts of extreme anxiety that typically appear in situations that the average person would consider normal or harmless. The APA recognizes these attacks as the main feature of a condition called panic disorder and a potential contributing feature in a variety of other mental disorders. According to the results of a study review published in the journal Psychiatric Times, the presence of a panic attack in a person affected by major depression or another depressive illness significantly increases the chances that that person will think about or attempt suicide, and it is a cause of teen suicide.

Panic attacks can occur suddenly in all kinds of settings and situations. While the specific symptoms of any given attack vary from person to person, known potential symptoms include an accelerated heartbeat, an altered form of breathing called hyperventilation, shaking or trembling muscles, pain in the chest or abdomen, lightheadedness, headaches, nausea, unusual sweatiness, throat constriction accompanied by swallowing difficulties, an unusually hot or cold body temperature, an unwarranted premonition of danger or disaster, fears of losing sanity and an unreasonable fear of oncoming death. Another significant symptom found in people affected by panic attacks is the persistent fear of experiencing another attack. In some people, this fear is strong enough to place substantial restrictions on the ability to participate in everyday life.

People who experience recurring panic attacks are eligible for a diagnosis of panic disorder. No one knows for sure what triggers individual attacks or panic disorder, but potential contributing factors include high-stress levels, genetic predisposition, imbalances in normal brain function, the presence of certain destabilizing personality traits, and misfiring of the body’s built-in stress reaction, called the fight-or-flightresponse. The effects of panic attacks or panic disorder can substantially increase a person’s chances of developing some form of depression or additional problems such as substance use disorders or some sort of phobia.

Some people plan suicide attempts well in advance, while others don’t make plans and attempt suicide with little or no real prior consideration. However, as the authors of the study review published in Psychiatric Times explain, even in people who plan suicides, there is an irrational, emotional urge that takes over for logical thinking in the moments before an attempt occurs. Factors that contribute to this irrational state include uncontrolled recall of unpleasant thoughts and memories, as well as a penetrating, agitating sense of hopelessness. In effect, the rush of thoughts, memories, and hopelessness produces a state closely akin to panic.

Several modern studies support the link between panicked states of mind and suicide in people diagnosed with depression. For instance, a study published in 2011 in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry assessed the effects of panic attacks in almost 2,700 people who had previously received a major depression diagnosis. The authors of this study concluded that individuals who experience panic attacks in any given year have substantially increased risks for considering suicide or actually attempting suicide at some point in their lives. These risks remain in effect even when other well-known risk factors for suicidal thoughts and actions are taken into account. Specific features of a panic attack especially associated with suicidal thinking and suicide attempts include fears of oncoming death and fears of losing one’s mental grip.

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