Fear of Bright Sunlight linked to Panic Attacks

Panic disorders are associated with fear of bright daylight, according to new research from the University of Siena.

Panic disorder, defined as when a person has recurring and regular panic attacks, affects about 1 in 50 people In the UK. They are roughly twice as common in women as it is in men.

Prior studies have suggested there is a strong seasonal component in panic disorder, however this is the first study to look expressly at panic disorder patients’ reactions to light.

Researchers compared 24 patients with panic disorder against 33 healthy controls in the study, presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology congress.

Aversion to Bright Light

fluorescent lightsAfter administering a standard Photosensitivity Assessment Questionnaire (PAQ), they discovered that the healthy control subjects showed a slight but not statistically significant tendency to be photophilic (attracted to bright light). On the other hand, the patients with panic disorder showed medium to high levels of aversion to bright light.

“There have been several hints that photophobia is associated with panic disorder; for example in some people, fluorescent light can induce panic attacks. It had also been noted that people with panic disorder often protect themselves from light, for example by wearing sunglasses”, said Dr Giulia Campinoti, lead researcher.

“We believe that photophobia is one of the elements which may increase the risk of people suffering from panic attacks, but this is a small study, so it needs to be confirmed by a longer-term follow-up trial. For example, we need to understand if the photosensitivity and panic attacks continue to be related over time. If we can confirm this, then we may be able to take steps to avoid some of the triggers to panic attacks. It is important to note that our work shows an association, not necessarily a cause and effect. We don’t yet know exactly what the relationship might be, but there is probably some underlying biochemical basis.”

Photosensitivity Assessment Questionnaire

The Photosensitivity Assessment Questionnaire asks participants to either agree or disagree with a series of questions about their attitude towards light, for example “My ideal house has large windows” or “Sunlight is so annoying to me, that I have to wear sunglasses when I go out.”

The mean values in the Photosensitivity Assessment Questionnaire were as follows: patients with photophobia scored 0.34 (± 0.32 SD), healthy subjects scored 0,11 (± 0,13 SD).

The researchers acknowledge the study was small and needs replication with larger samples before the relationship between photophobia and panic disorders can be established.

“It is important to note that our work shows an association, not necessarily a cause and effect. We don’t yet know exactly what the relationship might be, but there is probably some underlying biochemical basis,” said Dr. Campinoti.

More Information:

P.4.b.013 Photosensitivity and panic agoraphobic spectrum
G. Campinoti, L. Bossini, A. Fagiolini, Policlinico Le Scotte
Department of Mental Health Psychiatry Section University of Siena, Siena, Italy

Can J Psychiatry. 2005 Jan;50(1):39-45.
Panic-agoraphobic spectrum and light sensitivity in a general population sample in Italy.
Bossini L, Martinucci M, Paolini K, Castrogiovanni P.

Photo credits, top to bottom: Les Haines, Julian Frost