Since anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions rather than a single disorder, they can look very different from person to person. One individual may suffer from intense anxiety attacks that strike without warning, while another gets panicky at the thought of mingling at a party. Someone else may struggle with a disabling fear of driving, or uncontrollable, intrusive thoughts. Yet another may live in a constant state of tension, worrying about anything and everything. But despite their different forms, all anxiety disorders illicit an intense fear or anxiety out of proportion to the situation at hand.
Anxiety can be experienced with long, drawn out daily symptoms that reduce quality of life, known as chronic (or generalized) anxiety, or it can be experienced in short spurts with sporadic, stressful panic attacks, known as acute anxiety. Symptoms of anxiety can range in number, intensity, and frequency, depending on the person. While almost everyone has experienced anxiety at some point in their lives, most do not develop long-term problems with anxiety.
Because there are many medical conditions that can cause anxiety attack signs and symptoms, such as the strong sensations and feelings associated with anxiety attacks, it’s wise to discuss them with your doctor. If your doctor has attributed your anxiety attacks to stress and anxiety, you can feel confident that your doctor’s diagnosis is correct. Anxiety attacks and their signs and symptoms are relatively easy to diagnose and aren’t easily confused with other medical conditions.
Genetics and family history (e.g., parental anxiety) may predispose an individual for an increased risk of an anxiety disorder, but generally external stimuli will trigger its onset or exacerbation. Genetic differences account for about 43% of variance in panic disorder and 28% in generalized anxiety disorder. Although single genes are neither necessary nor sufficient for anxiety by themselves, several gene polymorphisms have been found to correlate with anxiety: PLXNA2, SERT, CRH, COMT and BDNF. Several of these genes influence neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and norepinephrine) and hormones (such as cortisol) which are implicated in anxiety. The epigenetic signature of at least one of these genes BDNF has also been associated with anxiety and specific patterns of neural activity.
While a single panic attack may only last a few minutes, the effects of the experience can leave a lasting imprint. If you have panic disorder, the recurrent panic attacks take an emotional toll. The memory of the intense fear and terror that you felt during the attacks can negatively impact your self-confidence and cause serious disruption to your everyday life. Eventually, this leads to the following panic disorder symptoms:
Exercise regularly. Exercise is a natural stress buster and anxiety reliever. To achieve the maximum benefit, aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days (broken up into short periods if that’s easier). Rhythmic activities that require moving both your arms and legs are especially effective. Try walking, running, swimming, martial arts, or dancing.
Researchers have conducted both animal and human studies to pinpoint the particular parts of the brain that are involved in anxiety and fear. Because fear evolved to deal with danger, it sets off an immediate protective response without conscious thought. This fear response is believed to be coordinated by the amygdala, a structure deep inside the brain. Although relatively small, the amygdala is quite complex, and recent studies suggest that anxiety disorders may be associated with abnormal activity within it.
Although how long a panic attack lasts can vary greatly, its duration is typically more than 10 minutes. A panic is one of the most distressing conditions that a person can endure, and its symptoms can closely mimic those of a heart attack. Typically, most people who have one panic attack will have others, and when someone has repeated attacks with no other apparent physical or emotional cause and it negatively changes their behavior due to the attacks or feels severe anxiety about having another attack, he or she is said to have panic disorder. A number of other emotional problems can have panic attacks as a symptom. Some of these illnesses include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and intoxication or withdrawal from alcohol and certain other drugs of abuse.
While the use of drugs in treating panic attacks can be very successful, it is generally recommended that people also be in some form of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Drug treatments are usually used throughout the duration of panic attack symptoms, and discontinued after the patient has been free of symptoms for at least six months. It is usually safest to withdraw from these drugs gradually while undergoing therapy. While drug treatment seems promising for children and adolescents, they are at an increased risk of suicide while taking these medications and their well-being should be monitored closely.
Generalized anxiety disorder is a condition in which your worries overwhelm you to the point where your daily routine seems difficult to carry out, and you have been worrying this way for at least six months. You may feel on edge and have difficulty focusing on tasks. There may be a tendency to fear and expect the worst; some call this catastrophic thinking. You even may know that your worries are perhaps irrational, but you still go on feeling them.
Humor and laughter, in addition to being fun and enjoyable, have many health benefits. Laughter can help people cope with stress, reduce anxiety and tension and serve as a coping mechanism. Humor may allow a person to feel in control of a situation and make it seem more manageable. By helping to reduce fear, anger and stress, humor can help minimize the potential harm they can have on the body over time.
Agoraphobia is often comorbid with panic disorder — meaning people often suffer from both conditions at the same time. It's an intense fear of not being able to escape whatever place you're in, and can often lead to an avoidance of leaving the house. People with agoraphobia can fear situations where this anxiety might flare up, and typically don't feel comfortable or safe in public, crowded places.
We all tend to avoid certain things or situations that make us uncomfortable or even fearful. But for someone with a phobia, certain places, events or objects create powerful reactions of strong, irrational fear. Most people with specific phobias have several things that can trigger those reactions; to avoid panic, they will work hard to avoid their triggers. Depending on the type and number of triggers, attempts to control fear can take over a person’s life.
A first panic attack is usually unexpected, and comes "out of the blue." It may scare you so much that you start taking steps to protect yourself from future attacks. Maybe you start avoiding places that remind you of your first attack. Maybe you only go out after making sure you have your cell phone, a bottle of water, and other objects you hope will keep you safe. Maybe you try hard to "stop thinking about it." You work hard to keep the panic at bay.
Fortunately, panic disorder is a treatable condition. Psychotherapy and medications have both been used, either singly or in combination, for successful treatment of panic disorder. If medication is necessary, your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications, certain antidepressants or sometimes certain anticonvulsant drugs that also have anti-anxiety properties, or a class of heart medications known as beta-blockers to help prevent or control the episodes in panic disorder.
Buspirone is a drug indicated for the treatment of anxiety. This drug has high efficacy for Generalized Anxiety Disorder and is particularly effective at reducing the cognitive and interpersonal problems associated with anxiety. Unlike benzodiazepines, buspirone does not have a sedative effect or interact with alcohol. Most importantly there is a very low risk of developing a dependence on buspirone. Its side effects are minimal but can include dizziness, nervousness, and headaches. BuSpar and Vanspar are brand names associated with buspirone.
Anxiety disorders are associated with chronic life stress. Unpredictable, unrelenting, unresolvable stressors chronically stimulate the stress hormone system and cardiovascular system, and lead to states of constant increased activity. Biologically, the body has evolved to deal with imminent and concrete danger in the environment, rather than continuous stressors. Under normal conditions where chronic stress is low, exposure to a sudden threat activates the autonomic nervous system, i.e. increased levels of adrenaline and faster breathing, and racing heart rate. These reactions in turn trigger activation of stress hormones, such as cortisol. One of the effects of these stress hormones is to increase glucose levels in the bloodstream in order to respond to the imminent threat, so that muscles can be activated for the flight or fight response. Another effect of stress hormones is to supress the immune system, since processes such as healing and repair can wait until after the threat subsides. However, in someone with an anxiety disorder, where there is constant activation of these responses to everyday stressors, the stress hormone system loses its ability to control immune function, thus contributing to heightened systemic inflammation that increases risk for cardiovascular and even autoimmune disorders. Neuroscience and clinical research continues to investigate how anxiety disorders increase individual risk for developing physical health co-morbidities in hopes of identifying new treatments that may alleviate suffering from and prevent the development of these whole-body disorders.
Repeated and persistent thoughts ("obsessions") that typically cause distress and that an individual attempts to alleviate by repeatedly performing specific actions ("compulsions"). Examples of common obsessions include: fear that failing to do things in a particular way will result in harm to self or others, extreme anxiety about being dirty or contaminated by germs, concern about forgetting to do something important that may result in bad outcomes, or obsessions around exactness or symmetry. Examples of common compulsions include: checking (e.g., that the door is locked or for an error), counting or ordering (e.g., money or household items), and performing a mental action (e.g., praying).
When you have an attack, your breath is too short and shallow, meaning it worsens further symptoms. Once you feel the panic – stand up and start doing some simple stretching. If you manage to squeeze in a yawn, that will help you tame the attack even faster. Stretching and yawning instantly helps you relieve muscle tension and interrupt the vicious cycle that is just about to roll in full strength.
Acupuncture is a treatment derived from traditional Chinese medicine. It consists of inserting very thin needles into the body in targeted areas. To date there is very little evidence that acupuncture can significantly treat generalized anxiety, although there are currently ongoing research trials for PTSD. One study did find that acupuncture can reduce pre-operative anxiety.
There are dozens of drugs that can be prescribed to treat anxiety. Since each person responds to medication differently, there's no one drug that works perfectly for everyone. You may have to work a little with a psychiatrist to find the right medication, or the right combination of medicines, that’s most beneficial to you. The drugs that are used to treat anxiety over a long period of time are antidepressants, which affect serotonin, norepinephrine, and other neurotransmitters in the brain.
Several drugs can cause or worsen anxiety, whether in intoxication, withdrawal or from chronic use. These include alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, sedatives (including prescription benzodiazepines), opioids (including prescription pain killers and illicit drugs like heroin), stimulants (such as caffeine, cocaine and amphetamines), hallucinogens, and inhalants. While many often report self-medicating anxiety with these substances, improvements in anxiety from drugs are usually short-lived (with worsening of anxiety in the long term, sometimes with acute anxiety as soon as the drug effects wear off) and tend to be exaggerated. Acute exposure to toxic levels of benzene may cause euphoria, anxiety, and irritability lasting up to 2 weeks after the exposure.
Be smart about caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. If you struggle with anxiety, you may want to consider reducing your caffeine intake, or cutting it out completely. Similarly alcohol can also make anxiety worse. And while it may seem like cigarettes are calming, nicotine is actually a powerful stimulant that leads to higher, not lower, levels of anxiety. For help kicking the habit, see How to Quit Smoking.
Although many people breathe into a paper bag in an attempt to alleviate the hyperventilation that can be associated with panic, the benefit received may be the result of the individual thinking it will help (a placebo effect). Unfortunately, breathing into a paper bag while having trouble breathing can worsen symptoms when the hyperventilation is caused by a condition associated with oxygen deprivation, like an asthma attack or a heart attack.
Demographic factors also impact risk for anxiety disorders. While there is not a strong consensus, research suggests that risk for anxiety disorders decreases over the lifespan with lower risk being demonstrated later in life. Women are significantly more likely to experience anxiety disorders. Another robust biological and sociodemographic risk factor for anxiety disorders is gender, as women are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety. Overall symptom severity has also been shown to be more severe in women compared to men, and women with anxiety disorders typically report a lower quality of life than men. This sex difference in the prevalence and severity of anxiety disorders that puts women at a disadvantage over men is not specific to anxiety disorders, but is also found in depression and other stress-related adverse health outcomes (i.e. obesity and cardiometabolic disease). Basic science and clinical studies suggest that ovarian hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, and their fluctuations may play an important role in this sex difference in anxiety disorder prevalence and severity. While changes in estrogen and progesterone, over the month as well as over the lifetime, are linked to change in anxiety symptom severity and have been shown to impact systems implicated in the etiology of anxiety disorders (i.e. the stress axis), it still remains unclear how these hormones and their fluctuations increase women's vulnerability to anxiety.
Says Clyman: "You might start to consider your emotions as changing experiences that are always fluctuating. When we feel distressed, it can seem like the distress is going to go on and on forever until we emotionally combust. But instead, emotions act more like a wave, at times increasing and becoming more intense. But inevitably they'll reach a plateau, subsiding and finally passing."