Panic disorder is thought to have a psychobiological conceptualization (Craske & Barlow, 2007). This does not mean that panic attacks are due to a biological disease. What this does mean is that there are certain biological factors that may be inherited or passed on through genes, and thus may lead some people to be more likely than others to experience panic disorder symptoms. This is likely why panic disorder seems to run in families. In other words, if one family member has panic disorder, the other family members are more likely to experience panic symptoms or panic disorder compared to people without a family history of panic disorder. It is very important to note that just inheriting these vulnerabilities to panic does not make the onset of panic attacks inevitable or unalterable. In fact, it is possible to think and act in ways that prevent panic attacks.
Simple Phobias and Agoraphobia: People with panic disorder often develop irrational fears of specific events or situations that they associate with the possibility of having a panic attack. Fear of heights and fear of crossing bridges are examples of simple phobias. As the frequency of panic attacks increases, the person often begins to avoid situations in which they fear another attack can occur or places where help would not be immediately available. This avoidance may eventually develop into agoraphobia, an inability to go beyond known and safe surroundings because of intense fear and anxiety. Generally, these fears can be resolved through repeated exposure to the dreaded situations, while practicing specific techniques to become less sensitive to them.
Anxiety disorders reflect disorders that share a general feature of excessive fear (i.e. emotional response to perceived or real threat) and/or anxiety (i.e. anticipation of future threat) and demonstrate behavioral and functional disturbances as a result. Panic attacks are a feature that can occur in the context of many anxiety disorders and reflect a type of fear response.
The mutism must also include impairment in social, academic, or occupational achievement or functioning to qualify as a diagnosis. Selective mutism is not present if it is related to lack of knowledge or comfort with the spoken language required of the situation or is due to embarrassment from a communication or developmental disorder. The symptoms cannot be better accounted for by another mental disorder or be caused by substances, medications, or medical illness.
In addition to the emotional turmoil and the physical manifestations that Caroline and Kirstie describe panic attacks can cause palpitations, pounding heart or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath or smothering; feelings of choking; chest pain or discomfort; nausea or abdominal distress; feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed or faint; chills or overheating; numbness or tingling; feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization); fear of losing control or “going crazy”; and fear of dying.
Although each anxiety disorder has unique characteristics, most respond well to two types of treatment: psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” and medications. These treatments can be given alone or in combination. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy, can help a person learn a different way of thinking, reacting and behaving to help feel less anxious. Medications will not cure anxiety disorders, but can give significant relief from symptoms. The most commonly used medications are anti-anxiety medications (generally prescribed only for a short period of time) and antidepressants. Beta-blockers, used for heart conditions, are sometimes used to control physical symptoms of anxiety.
Generally, anxiety arises first, often during childhood. Evidence suggests that both biology and environment can contribute to the disorder. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety; however, even so, development of the condition is not inevitable. Early traumatic experiences can also reset the body’s normal fear-processing system so that it is hyper-reactive.
Almost everyone experiencing symptoms of a panic attack needs evaluation. Unless the person has a history of having panic attacks, is otherwise healthy, and is experiencing a typical attack, they must be evaluated promptly by a doctor. The level of evaluation depends on many factors. Err on the side of safety when deciding whether to go to a hospital's emergency department.
Panic disorder is a diagnosis given to people who experience recurrent unexpected panic attacks— that is, the attack appears to occur from out of the blue. The term recurrent refers to the fact that the individual has had more than one unexpected panic attack. In contrast, expected panic attacks occur when there is an obvious cue or trigger, such as a specific phobia or generalized anxiety disorder. In the U.S., roughly 50% of people with panic disorder experience both unexpected and expected panic attacks.
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.