Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.
The causes of anxiety attacks are not well understood. Some traumatic life events can set off anxiety attacks if the person is prone to depression or anxiety disorders. Also, medical conditions and some medications may trigger anxiety attacks. Many believe anxiety attacks run in families with a genetic predisposition. In other words, if your mom and her sister had anxiety attacks, it’s likely you will, too.
When we’re anxious, the body produces a stress response. The stress response is designed to give us an extra ‘boost’ of awareness and energy when we think we could be in danger. The stress response causes a number of physiological, psychological, and emotional changes in the body that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a perceived threat – to either fight or flee, which is the reason the stress response is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight response.’
One of the scariest early experiences in panic disorder is having a panic attack and not knowing what is happening to your body. By learning more about panic attacks and panic disorder, you can start to label and identify the experience that you are having. Although the experience of panic attacks is very distressing, having a panic attack will not cause you to die or to completely lose control and they do not mean that you are going crazy. Sometimes, just knowing what is going on can help people to feel better. For example, the next time you have a panic attack, you can tell yourself "this is anxiety. I have felt this before and I was okay."
Secondly, the psychobiological conceptualization of panic disorder emphasizes the influence of psychological factors (Meuret, White, Ritz, Roth, Hofmann, & Brown, 2006). This psychological factor refers to a fear of bodily sensations, or a certain set of beliefs that lead individuals to be especially afraid of physical symptoms, such as believing that a racing heart could mean heart disease. Sometimes this is discussed as anxiety sensitivity or a belief that anxiety is harmful. Again, having the belief that physical symptoms are harmful may increase the likelihood of experiencing a panic attack, but it does not make having a panic attack inevitable. Instead, panic attacks can seem abnormal if they occur at the wrong time, when there is no real reason to be afraid. It is important to consider, however, that anxiety can also be adaptive or helpful in contexts where there is true threat.
Medication does not cure anxiety disorders but can help relieve symptoms. Medication for anxiety is prescribed by doctors, such as a psychiatrist or primary care provider. Some states also allow psychologists who have received specialized training to prescribe psychiatric medications. The most common classes of medications used to combat anxiety disorders are anti-anxiety drugs (such as benzodiazepines), antidepressants, and beta-blockers.