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Panic disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress. These sensations often mimic symptoms of a heart attack or other life-threatening medical conditions. As a result, the diagnosis of panic disorder is frequently not made until extensive and costly medical procedures fail to provide a correct diagnosis or relief.
We have all felt anxiety—the nervousness before a date, test, competition, presentation—but what exactly is it? Anxiety is our body's way of preparing to face a challenge. Our heart pumps more blood and oxygen so we are ready for action. We are alert and perform physical and emotional tasks more efficiently. (See also Test Anxiety for tips on dealing with tests.)
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.
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.
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.
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.