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.
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.’
There remains a chance of panic symptoms becoming triggered or being made worse due to increased respiration rate that occurs during aerobic exercise. This increased respiration rate can lead to hyperventilation and hyperventilation syndrome, which mimics symptoms of a heart attack, thus inducing a panic attack. Benefits of incorporating an exercise regimen have shown best results when paced accordingly.
The avoidance behaviors associated with agoraphobia can greatly restrict a person’s life. People with agoraphobia often develop groups of feared situations that are related. For example, many people with agoraphobia become extremely upset and uncomfortable in areas where there are many people in a confined space. This fear may limit them from standing in line at a store, going to a movie theater, or traveling on an airplane. Other commonly feared situations for people with agoraphobia include forms of travel, being alone, and open spaces. These fears may result in an inability to even leave their homes.
Your brain focuses on some alleged thread, for instance, a very scary thought that was floating somewhere at your subconscious. Your thalamus – the part of the brain responsible for regulating consciousness, sleep and alertness – transfers that information to your amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions, decision-making and memory – which marks it as “danger” and sends a signal to your sympathetic nervous system, activating the fight-or-flight response.
NOTE: The Symptoms Listing section in the Recovery Support area of our website contains detailed information about most of the symptoms commonly associated with anxiety and panic. This information includes the sensations commonly experienced, whether it is an anxiety symptom or not, what causes them to occur, and what you can do to treat them. Much of this information isn’t found elsewhere.
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.
Many neurotransmitters are affected when the body is under the increased stress and anxiety that accompany a panic attack. Some include serotonin, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), dopamine, norepinephrine and glutamate. More research into how these neurotransmitters interact with one another during a panic attack is needed to make any solid conclusions, however.
Often, a combination of psychotherapy and medications produces good results in the treatment of panic disorder. Improvement is usually noticed in about two to three months. Thus, appropriate treatment for panic disorder can prevent panic attacks or at least substantially reduce their severity and frequency, bringing significant relief to 70%-90% of people with the illness. More than 18% of people who are assessed but not treated for this condition tend to relapse in less than two years. As these statistics indicate, access to appropriate mental health care is key to a positive prognosis for people who suffer from panic attacks. Therefore, it is imperative to alleviate the well documented economic and racial disparities that exist in having and using access to care. Combating other social disparities, like educational, employment, housing, and criminal justice, is also seen as being important to improving the prognosis for recovering from panic attacks and other health problems.
Cognitive therapy and exposure therapy are two CBT methods that are often used, together or by themselves, to treat social anxiety disorder. Cognitive therapy focuses on identifying, challenging, and then neutralizing unhelpful or distorted thoughts underlying anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy focuses on confronting the fears underlying an anxiety disorder to help people engage in activities they have been avoiding. Exposure therapy is sometimes used along with relaxation exercises and/or imagery.