While everyone experiences brief episodes of intense anxiety from time to time, and a great many people experience one or two anxiety attacks over the course of their lifetime, anxiety attack disorder occurs when these attacks become frequent or persistent, begin interfering with or restricting normal lifestyle, or when the individual becomes afraid of them. Once established, anxiety attack disorder can be very debilitating.
Almost everyone has something they fear – maybe it's spiders, enclosed spaces, or heights. When we encounter these "threats," our hearts might begin to race, or our hands may become sweaty. Many fear-related disorders are treated using exposure therapy. This helps people "unlearn" a threat fear response by breaking the association between the "trigger." Imagination allows patients to immerse themselves with a triggering stimulus in a controlled way, at their own pace, which is why it could be a promising new form of treatment.
Exposure therapy for panic disorder allows you to experience the physical sensations of panic in a safe and controlled environment, giving you the opportunity to learn healthier ways of coping. You may be asked to hyperventilate, shake your head from side to side, or hold your breath. These different exercises cause sensations similar to the symptoms of panic. With each exposure, you become less afraid of these internal bodily sensations and feel a greater sense of control over your panic.
At least 6 million Americans suffer from panic attacks and panic disorder both conditions classified as anxiety disorders. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), about 2-3% of Americans experience panic disorder in a given year and it is twice as common in women as in men. Panic disorder typically affects individuals when they’re in their 20s but is also seen in young children, adolescents, and older adults.
I was 34 before I knew anxiety was real. I had lived my life with these feelings, never knowing that everyone else wasn’t experiencing the same thing. I was 35 when I reached out to a friend, who is a nurse practitioner, to ask about my symptoms. That is when I began taking medication. I am on the lowest dose of anxiety medication and I have been taking it for six months. It has changed my life.
Panic disorder is characterized by uncontrollable, recurrent episodes of panic and fear that peak within minutes. Panic attacks are accompanied by physical manifestations, such as heart palpitations, sweating, and dizziness as well as the fear of dying or becoming insane. Worry about having an attack may lead to additional anxiety and avoidance behaviors or to other problems in functioning.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by uncontrollable anxious thoughts or behaviors. Individuals with OCD are plagued by persistent, unwelcome thoughts and images or by the urgent need to engage in certain rituals. Some OCD sufferers may only have obsessive thoughts without the related rituals. The disturbing thoughts or images (e.g., fear of germs) are called obsessions, and the rituals performed to try to get rid of them (e.g., hand washing) are called compulsions. For example, people who are obsessed with germs may wash their hands excessively. The individual is not happy to be performing the ritual behaviors but finds this to be the only way to get temporary relief from the obsessive thought.
Anxiety isn't always a bad thing. In fact, it can motivate you and help you to stay focused under pressure. But when worries, fears, or panic attacks start to get in the way of your life, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. Whatever form of anxiety you're dealing with, there are many things you can do to gain peace of mind and take back control of your life.
Yes, panic attacks are real and potentially quite emotionally disabling. Fortunately, they can be controlled with specific treatments. Because of the disturbing physical signs and symptoms that accompany panic attacks, they may be mistaken for heart attacks or some other life-threatening medical problem. In fact, up to 25% of people who visit emergency rooms because of chest pain are actually experiencing panic. This can lead to people with this symptom often undergoing extensive medical testing to rule out physical conditions. Sadly, sometimes more than 90% of these individuals are not appropriately diagnosed as suffering from panic.
A variety of medical and mental health professionals are qualified to assess and treat panic disorders. From purely medical professionals like primary care doctors, emergency room physicians to practitioners with mental health training like psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, a variety of health care providers may be involved in the care of panic disorder sufferers. Some practitioners will administer a self-test of screening questions to people whom they suspect may be suffering from panic disorder. In addition to looking for symptoms of repeated panic attacks using what is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), asking detailed questions about the sufferer's history and conducting a mental-status examination, mental health professionals will explore the possibility that the individual's symptoms are caused by another emotional illness instead of or in addition to the diagnosis of panic disorder. For example, people with an addiction often experience panic attacks, but those symptom characteristics generally only occur when the person is either intoxicated or withdrawing from the substance. Someone who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have panic attacks when reminded of trauma they experienced and in a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks may be triggered by their being unable to perform a compulsive behavior. The practitioner will also likely ensure that a physical examination and any other appropriate medical tests have been done recently to explore whether there is any medical problem that could be contributing to the occurrence of panic attacks. That is particularly important since many medical conditions may have panic attacks as a symptom and therefore require that the underlying medical condition be treated in order to alleviate the associated anxiety. Examples of that include the need for treatment with antibiotics for infections like Lyme disease or vitamin supplements to address certain forms of anemia.
Medication can be used to temporarily control or reduce some of the symptoms of panic disorder. However, it doesn’t treat or resolve the problem. Medication can be useful in severe cases, but it should not be the only treatment pursued. Medication is most effective when combined with other treatments, such as therapy and lifestyle changes, that address the underlying causes of panic disorder.
You can learn more about this in the Recovery Support area of our website. Our support area contains a wealth of self-help information on how to treat anxiety disorder, including anxiety attacks. Many find it to be their “one stop” destination for anxiety disorder help. You can click here for more information about our Recovery Support area membership options.
Panic attacks are common among all anxiety disorders but what sets panic disorder apart is that panic attacks are unexpected and occur "out of the blue" without an obvious trigger (American Psychiatric Association, 2013; Craske & Barlow, 2007). These unexpected panic attacks must be associated with a significant change in behavior or be followed by at least one month of persistent worry about having another attack or about what will happen if you have another panic attack.
Psychologically, people who develop panic attacks or another anxiety disorder are more likely to have a history of what is called anxiety sensitivity. Anxiety sensitivity is the tendency for a person to fear that anxiety-related bodily sensations (like brief chest pain or stomach upset) have dire personal consequences (for example, believing that it automatically means their heart will stop or they will throw up, respectively). From a social standpoint, a risk factor for developing panic disorder as an adolescent or adult is a history of being physically or sexually abused as a child. This is even more the case for panic disorder when compared to other anxiety disorders. Often, the first attacks are triggered by physical illnesses, another major life stress, or perhaps medications that increase activity in the part of the brain involved in fear reactions.
Facing Panic:Self Help for People with Panic Attacks. Learn seven self-help steps to break the cycle of panic and regain control of your life. This book includes techniques and exercises to manage and overcome panic attacks and panic disorder. The disorder often occurs with other mental and physical disorders, including other anxiety disorders, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, or substance abuse. This may complicate of getting a correct diagnosis.
Nevertheless, if you are struggling with symptoms of an anxiety disorder it is not uncommon to feel alone and misunderstood. Because the fear that people with an anxiety disorder have is not experienced by others, they may not understand why, for example, being in a crowd of people, not being able to wash your hands after meeting a new person, or driving through the street where you got in a car accident can be really anxiety-provoking for someone with an anxiety disorder. People may comment that "there is no reason to worry about it" or that you "should just let it go".
A person with panic disorder experiences sudden and repeated panic attacks—episodes of intense fear and discomfort that reach a peak within a few minutes—during which time the individual experiences physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, breathlessness, vertigo, or abdominal distress, sometimes accompanied by the fear of dying or of going insane. These symptoms may seem similar to those of a heart attack or other life-threatening medical conditions. Panic disorder is often diagnosed after medical tests or emergency room visits have ruled out other serious illnesses.
In the central nervous system (CNS), the major mediators of the symptoms of anxiety disorders appear to be norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Other neurotransmitters and peptides, such as corticotropin-releasing factor, may be involved. Peripherally, the autonomic nervous system, especially the sympathetic nervous system, mediates many of the symptoms. Increased flow in the right parahippocampal region and reduced serotonin type 1A receptor binding in the anterior and posterior cingulate and raphe of patients are the diagnostic factors for prevalence of anxiety disorder.
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Although individual participants may benefit from being part of a clinical trial, participants should be aware that the primary purpose of a clinical trial is to gain new scientific knowledge so that others may be better helped in the future. Decisions about whether to apply for a clinical trial and which ones are best suited for a given individual are best made in collaboration with a licensed health professional.