Panic attacks, a hallmark of panic disorder, are sudden and repeated bouts of overwhelming fear. These attacks, which often begin in adolescence or early adulthood, are much more intense than normal feelings of anxiety or stress. They usually pass after a few minutes and typically last no longer than an hour, but can continue to recur throughout a day.
Genetic risk factors have been documented for all anxiety disorders. Clinical genetic studies indicate that heritability estimates for anxiety disorders range from 30-67%. Many studies, past and present, have focused on identifying specific genetic factors that increase one's risk for an anxiety disorder. To date, an array of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) or small variations in genetic code, that confer heightened risk for anxiety have been discovered. For the most part, the variants that have been associated with risk for anxiety are located within genes that are critical for the expression and regulation of neurotransmitter systems or stress hormones.
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.
At some point in our lives, most of us will experience a panic attack in response to an actual danger or acute stress. But when panic attacks occur or recur for no reason and in the absence of danger or extreme stress, or when the fear of experiencing another attack is so strong that you change your behavior by avoiding certain places or people, you may have panic disorder.
Although phobias can be crippling, they're not obvious at all times. In fact, they may not surface until you confront a specific situation and discover you're incapable of overcoming your fear. "A person who's afraid of snakes can go for years without having a problem," Winston says. "But then suddenly their kid wants to go camping, and they realize they need treatment."
People who have had a panic attack in certain situations may develop irrational fears, called phobias, of these situations and begin to avoid them. Eventually, the pattern of avoidance and level of anxiety about another attack may reach the point where individuals with panic disorder are unable to drive or even step out of the house. At this stage, the person is said to have panic disorder with agoraphobia.
Panic disorder sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some family members have it while others don’t. Researchers have found that several parts of the brain, as well as biological processes, play a key role in fear and anxiety. Some researchers think that people with panic disorder misinterpret harmless bodily sensations as threats. By learning more about how the brain and body functions in people with panic disorder, scientists may be able to create better treatments. Researchers are also looking for ways in which stress and environmental factors may play a role.
Anxiety is distinguished from fear, which is an appropriate cognitive and emotional response to a perceived threat. Anxiety is related to the specific behaviors of fight-or-flight responses, defensive behavior or escape. It occurs in situations only perceived as uncontrollable or unavoidable, but not realistically so. David Barlow defines anxiety as "a future-oriented mood state in which one is not ready or prepared to attempt to cope with upcoming negative events," and that it is a distinction between future and present dangers which divides anxiety and fear. Another description of anxiety is agony, dread, terror, or even apprehension. In positive psychology, anxiety is described as the mental state that results from a difficult challenge for which the subject has insufficient coping skills.
Moreover, this hypocapnia and release of adrenaline during a panic attack cause vasoconstriction resulting in slightly less blood flow to the head which causes dizziness and lightheadedness. A panic attack can cause blood sugar to be drawn away from the brain and toward the major muscles. Neuroimaging suggests heightened activity in the amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, and brainstem regions including the periaqueductal gray, parabrachial nucleus, and Locus coeruleus. In particular, the amygdala has been suggested to have a critical role. The combination of high arousal in the amygdala and brainstem along with decreased blood flow and blood sugar in the brain can lead to dramatically decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain. There is evidence that having an anxiety disorder increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Those affected also have a reduction in heart rate variability.
Anxiety disorders can often be addressed successfully with a combination of therapy and medication. For therapy, patients may undergo psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, in which they learn to change how they respond to situations that induce anxiety. For medications, clinicians may, for limited periods of time, prescribe antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or tricyclics, tranquilizers such as benzodiazepines; they may also prescribe beta blockers for specific events. Different strategies can also help people who experience feelings of anxiety but the severity of which falls below the clinical threshold for diagnosis. Habits such as exercising, sleeping well, and limiting the amount of caffeine and alcohol consumed can prove helpful. Strategies such as taking deep breaths, acknowledging limits to fully controlling situations, pushing back against anxious or irrational thoughts, and observing the circumstances that tend to produce anxiety are proven to reduce anxiety by helping people feel better prepared in the future.
What happens, exactly? "We all physically respond to stress," says Barbara O. Rothbaum, PhD, psychiatry professor and director, Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program, at Atlanta's Emory University School of Medicine. "You might feel anxious about work-related problems, taking a big exam, or making an important decision. But someone who suffers from panic disorder may react to those same moderate pressures with an exaggerated physical reaction-as if he or she were about to be attacked by a wild tiger or fall from a great height. It's full-on, adrenaline-pumping, fight-or-flight response."
For example, a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder may experience a panic attack when their schedule or compulsions are interrupted. Individuals who struggle with specific phobias are also susceptible to panic attacks. A person with an extreme fear of heights (acrophobia) may experience a panic attack in a penthouse apartment. And for someone with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a condition characterized by extreme fear or worry, the unending anxiety can escalate to a panic attack. People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a higher incidence of panic disorder than the general population. Illness or traumatic events increase the chances of panic attacks.
Singers Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, and Selena Gomez are just a few celebrities who have spoken out about their mental health struggles. But by learning to recognize their symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other issues, and in many cases seeking professional help, these celebs are not only able to better deal with their conditions, but to continue to thrive in spite of them.
Although beta-blockers are most often used to treat high blood pressure, they can also be used to help relieve the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat, shaking, trembling, and blushing. These medications, when taken for a short period of time, can help people keep physical symptoms under control. They can also be used “as needed” to reduce acute anxiety, including as a preventive intervention for some predictable forms of performance anxieties.