Many people use the terms anxiety attack and panic attack interchangeable, but in reality, they represent two different experiences. The DSM-5 uses the term panic attack to describe the hallmark features of panic disorder or panic attacks that occur as a result of another mental disorder. To be considered a panic attack, four or more of the symptoms outlined in the DSM-5 must be present.
Chest pain is always an alarming symptom, because most of us (appropriately) associate it with cardiac conditions, in particular angina or a myocardial infarction (heart attack). However, chest pain can also be caused by a number of conditions that have nothing to do with the heart. And one of the more common non-cardiac problems that frequently produces chest pain is an anxiety attack.
“One day, without any warning or reason, a feeling of terrible anxiety came crashing down on me. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air, no matter how hard I breathed. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I thought I might die. I was sweating and felt dizzy. I felt like I had no control over these feelings and like I was drowning and couldn’t think straight.
A panic attack is a response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The most common symptoms include trembling, dyspnea (shortness of breath), heart palpitations, chest pain (or chest tightness), hot flashes, cold flashes, burning sensations (particularly in the facial or neck area), sweating, nausea, dizziness (or slight vertigo), light-headedness, hyperventilation, paresthesias (tingling sensations), sensations of choking or smothering, difficulty moving, and derealization. These physical symptoms are interpreted with alarm in people prone to panic attacks. This results in increased anxiety and forms a positive feedback loop.
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).
Once you are under enough stress, almost anything can set off a panic attack. Suppose you are under a lot of stress, but still managing. If you add even more stress, your brain will begin to feel under siege. Your body will respond by releasing adrenaline as part of the fight or flight response. That will cause more anxiety, which will create a vicious feedback that will turn into a panic disorder.
You do not need to be officially diagnosed with panic disorder to have an attack. Some people have only one or two panic attacks in their life and don't have panic disorder. Panic attacks are actually much more common than panic disorder. According to one Harvard Medical School survey, about 23 percent of people interviewed experienced at least one panic attack in their lifetime, while only about 3 percent of people experienced panic disorder in their lifetime. (1)
The degree of accompanying stress response and its physiological, psychological, and emotional changes are directly proportional to the degree of anxiety. For example, if you are only slightly concerned, such as being slightly nervous about meeting someone new, the body produces a small degree stress response. The small degree stress response can be so slight that you don’t even notice it.
At least 6 million Americans suffer from panic attacks and panic disorder both conditions classified as anxiety disorders. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), about 2-3% of Americans experience panic disorder in a given year and it is twice as common in women as in men. Panic disorder typically affects individuals when they’re in their 20s but is also seen in young children, adolescents, and older adults.
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.
Other research suggests that social structures that contribute to inequality, such as lower wages, may play a part. In a study published in January 2016 in the journal Social Science and Medicine, Columbia epidemiologists reviewed data on wages and mood disorders, and noted that, at least in their data set, when a woman's pay rose higher than a man's, the odds of her having both generalized anxiety disorder and major depression decreased. (10)
About 12% of people are affected by an anxiety disorder in a given year and between 5-30% are affected at some point in their life. They occur about twice as often in women than they do in men, and generally begin before the age of 25. The most common are specific phobia which affects nearly 12% and social anxiety disorder which affects 10% at some point in their life. They affect those between the ages of 15 and 35 the most and become less common after the age of 55. Rates appear to be higher in the United States and Europe.
Social anxiety disorder (previously called social phobia): People with social anxiety disorder have a general intense fear of, or anxiety toward, social or performance situations. They worry that actions or behaviors associated with their anxiety will be negatively evaluated by others, leading them to feel embarrassed. This worry often causes people with social anxiety to avoid social situations. Social anxiety disorder can manifest in a range of situations, such as within the workplace or the school environment.