"Anxiety" is a general term that describes a variety of experiences, including nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worry, that are common in several mental health disorders. While most of us have anxiety at some time, this is completely different from an anxiety attack or anxiety disorder. Normal feelings of nervousness, worry, and fear often have a known trigger (a major exam, money issues, or seeing a bug). But when you're having a full blown panic attack or anxiety attack, the symptoms — chest pain, flushing skin, racing heart, and difficulty breathing — can make you feel as though you're going to faint, lose your mind, or die. The reality is, you won’t. The key to surviving is to learn all you can about anxiety attacks and practice the skills you need to get through them.
Comorbidity is more common than not with anxiety disorders, meaning that most individuals who experience significant anxiety experience multiple different types of anxiety. Given this co-morbidity, it is not surprising that many risk factors are shared across anxiety disorders, or have the same underlying causes. There is a lot of research identifying risk factors for anxiety disorders, and this research suggests that both nature and nurture are very relevant. It is important to note that no single risk factor is definitive - many people may have a risk factor for a disorder, and not ever develop that disorder. However, it is helpful for research to identify risk factors and for people to be aware of them, as being aware of who might be at risk can potentially help people get support or assistance in order to prevent the development of a disorder.
A number of medical conditions can cause anxiety symptoms. These include an overactive thyroid, hypoglycemia, mitral valve prolapse, anemia, asthma, COPD, inflammatory bowel disease, Parkinson's disease, and dementia among others. Your physician may perform certain tests to rule out these conditions. But it is important to remember that anxiety is more often due to poor coping skills or substance abuse than any medical condition.
As is true for other mood and anxiety disorders, the use of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI's; e.g.., Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft), Benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Lorazepam), and Selective Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRI's; e.g., Cymbalta, Effexor, Pristiq) are common medical treatments for panic disorder. Additionally, D-cycloserine is a medication that is now being explored as a way to enhance effects of CBT (e.g., Hofmann et al., 2013). These medications may have side effects and taking them can lead to tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and dependence, so it is important that you consult with a physician before starting or stopping these medications. There is evidence that taking one of these medications in addition to receiving behavioral therapy (e.g., CBT) can significantly benefit patients with panic disorder, although seeking psychotherapy in itself is largely effective (Arch et al., 2017).
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.
Some types of drugs may work better for specific types of anxiety disorders, so people should work closely with their doctor to identify which medication is best for them. Certain substances such as caffeine, some over-the-counter cold medicines, illicit drugs, and herbal supplements may aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders or interact with prescribed medication. Patients should talk with their doctor, so they can learn which substances are safe and which to avoid.
When we are mildly concerned (worried, afraid), the stress response produces a mild reaction in the body. When we are greatly concerned/worried/afraid, the stress response produces a dramatic reaction in the body. Since the stress response is directly proportional to the degree of worry, a panic attack and its symptoms are generally the result of serious worry, concern, and fear.
Many patients first report symptoms to their primary care physician. Primary care physicians (PCPs) will administer a thorough physical exam to rule out hormonal imbalances, side effects of medications, and certain illnesses. If the symptoms are not due to other conditions, the physician may diagnose the patient with anxiety and therefore refer the patient to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Physicians practice in hospitals, clinics and private practices.
In order to manage threatening situations, humans have evolved to experience a "fight or flight" response. As part of this response, when humans are confronted with a dangerous situation, their body mobilizes by sending blood away from their extremities (e.g. hands and feet) and into the major muscles, producing adrenaline, and increasing heart rate so that we are better equipped to fight off danger.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an extreme anxiety disorder that can occur in the aftermath of a traumatic or life-threatening event. PTSD can be thought of as a panic attack that rarely, if ever, lets up. Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks or nightmares about what happened, hypervigilance, startling easily, withdrawing from others, and avoiding situations that remind you of the event.
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."
If you’ve been experiencing panic attacks or think you may have panic disorder, we encourage you to seek diagnosis and treatment from your doctor and a mental health professional. Although panic attacks can feel like a debilitating and embarrassing condition, it is important to remember that you aren’t alone and your mental health is nothing to be embarrassed about. There are a variety of resources available to you for advice and support, both online and in the form of support groups. For more information, ask your healthcare provider about what is available in your area and check out the links below:
You can learn more about this in the Recovery Support area of our website. Our support area contains a wealth of self-help information on how to treat anxiety disorder, including anxiety attacks. Many find it to be their “one stop” destination for anxiety disorder help. You can click here for more information about our Recovery Support area membership options.
A healthy diet is also important to reduce and prevent anxiety. It seems counterintuitive that you can "eat your way to calm" but sustaining a healthy diet can really help you to feel more at ease on a regular basis, despite stressors. Some foods that are particularly helpful for reducing anxiety include foods with omega 3 fatty acids (i.e., salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed) and probiotics. Avoid greasy, sugary, high-fat, and processed foods. Additionally, avoiding caffeine when feeling anxious as well as unhealthy substances (i.e., alcohol) could be beneficial. Drinking alcohol might seem like a good way to calm down, but it can lead to sustained anxious symptoms. Incorporating a healthy diet into your lifestyle is fundamental to preventing and reducing anxiety.
Selective mutism: A somewhat rare disorder associated with anxiety is selective mutism. Selective mutism occurs when people fail to speak in specific social situations despite having normal language skills. Selective mutism usually occurs before the age of 5 and is often associated with extreme shyness, fear of social embarrassment, compulsive traits, withdrawal, clinging behavior, and temper tantrums. People diagnosed with selective mutism are often also diagnosed with other anxiety disorders.