Panic attacks themselves are tough to predict. In panic disorder's early stages, there is no identifiable trigger that starts the attack.
Researchers at Brown University have discovered that when people with panic disorder experience stress, like job loss or relationship troubles, panic symptoms don’t increase right away.
"If you're under stress, talk to a therapist."
Because of this gradual increase, patients and doctors might not realize that a flare-up in the disorder could be imminent, said Dr. Martin Keller, professor of psychiatry and human behavior and principal investigator. Psychiatrists should watch their patients with panic disorder closely during that time to head off problems, Keller suggested.
In an assessment of 418 adults with panic disorder, the researchers found that their symptoms worsen much more gradually, over several months.
The researchers also found that panic symptoms typically didn’t increase before stressful events, but afterward instead.
In past studies, scientists have linked stressful life events with the onset of panic disorder. One theory is that stress triggers an existing tendency in the person to hyperventilate, causing panic symptoms.
The long-term impact of stress on people with panic disorder could explain why the disorder can get worse, researchers said.
The study was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.