Most of the symptoms of a panic attack are physical, and many times these symptoms are so severe that you may think you’re having a heart attack. In fact, many people suffering from panic attacks make repeated trips to the doctor or the emergency room in an attempt to get treatment for what they believe is a life-threatening medical problem. While it’s important to rule out possible medical causes of symptoms such as chest pain, elevated heart rate, or difficulty breathing, it’s often panic that is overlooked as a potential cause—not the other way around.
In the central nervous system (CNS), the major mediators of the symptoms of anxiety disorders appear to be norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Other neurotransmitters and peptides, such as corticotropin-releasing factor, may be involved. Peripherally, the autonomic nervous system, especially the sympathetic nervous system, mediates many of the symptoms. Increased flow in the right parahippocampal region and reduced serotonin type 1A receptor binding in the anterior and posterior cingulate and raphe of patients are the diagnostic factors for prevalence of anxiety disorder.
Psychologically, people who develop panic attacks or another anxiety disorder are more likely to have a history of what is called anxiety sensitivity. Anxiety sensitivity is the tendency for a person to fear that anxiety-related bodily sensations (like brief chest pain or stomach upset) have dire personal consequences (for example, believing that it automatically means their heart will stop or they will throw up, respectively). From a social standpoint, a risk factor for developing panic disorder as an adolescent or adult is a history of being physically or sexually abused as a child. This is even more the case for panic disorder when compared to other anxiety disorders. Often, the first attacks are triggered by physical illnesses, another major life stress, or perhaps medications that increase activity in the part of the brain involved in fear reactions.
To activate your parasympathetic nervous system, use this simple meditation technique: focus your gaze on an imaginary point in front of you; relax your focus and use your peripheral vision, as if you are trying to take in everything around you with soft focus. It signals to your brain to relax. The more you practice this technique – the faster it will help you to relax in any situation.
Anxiety disorders are associated with chronic life stress. Unpredictable, unrelenting, unresolvable stressors chronically stimulate the stress hormone system and cardiovascular system, and lead to states of constant increased activity. Biologically, the body has evolved to deal with imminent and concrete danger in the environment, rather than continuous stressors. Under normal conditions where chronic stress is low, exposure to a sudden threat activates the autonomic nervous system, i.e. increased levels of adrenaline and faster breathing, and racing heart rate. These reactions in turn trigger activation of stress hormones, such as cortisol. One of the effects of these stress hormones is to increase glucose levels in the bloodstream in order to respond to the imminent threat, so that muscles can be activated for the flight or fight response. Another effect of stress hormones is to supress the immune system, since processes such as healing and repair can wait until after the threat subsides. However, in someone with an anxiety disorder, where there is constant activation of these responses to everyday stressors, the stress hormone system loses its ability to control immune function, thus contributing to heightened systemic inflammation that increases risk for cardiovascular and even autoimmune disorders. Neuroscience and clinical research continues to investigate how anxiety disorders increase individual risk for developing physical health co-morbidities in hopes of identifying new treatments that may alleviate suffering from and prevent the development of these whole-body disorders.
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.
You may experience one or more panic attacks, yet be otherwise perfectly happy and healthy. Or your panic attacks may occur as part of another disorder, such as panic disorder, social phobia, or depression. Regardless of the cause, panic attacks are treatable. There are strategies you can use to cope with the symptoms as well as effective treatments.
To receive a diagnosis of panic disorder, the panic attacks must be unexpected and during the attack four or more of the above symptoms must occur. For panic attacks that are expected, meaning they might not be expected by the individual but are expected in relation to any phobia, anxiety or other mental health disorder, four or more symptoms must also occur.
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.
Exposure therapy for panic disorder with agoraphobia includes exposure to the situations you fear and avoid is also included in treatment. As in exposure therapy for specific phobias, you face the feared situation until the panic begins to go away. Through this experience, you learn that the situation isn’t harmful and that you have control over your emotions.
All in a moment that may have lasted hours or seconds, everything came to a halt. The word panic doesn’t seem to reach the sensations I felt during those minutes and hours. My body ached, my insides contracted and felt ice cold, my heart hurt more than any pain I’ve felt. What was worse was the paralyzing, gripping fear—sheer and utter incapacitating fear— that I was leaving so many things undone.
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.
Panic attacks and panic disorder are treatable once the underlying cause of is identified. “Usually medical conditions and other factors (substance use or withdrawal from substances) are ruled out before making the diagnosis,” says Flo Leighton, psychiatric nurse practitioner, and therapist with Union Square Practice in Manhattan. Getting to the root cause typically takes a couple of sessions, says Leighton. Here are some options that may be recommended to you :
Your heart beats fast, and your breathing speeds up. Your chest may feel tight, and you might start to sweat. If you've ever felt it, you know that anxiety is just as much a physical state as a mental state. That's because there's a very strong biological chain reaction that occurs when we encounter a stressful event or begin to worry about potential stressors or dangers in the future. Other physical symptoms include sweating, headaches, and insomnia. Psychological symptoms may include feeling restless or irritable, feeling tense, having a feeling of dread, or experiencing ruminative or obsessive thoughts.
Many medical conditions can cause anxiety. This includes conditions that affect the ability to breathe, like COPD and asthma, and the difficulty in breathing that often occurs near death. Conditions that cause abdominal pain or chest pain can cause anxiety and may in some cases be a somatization of anxiety; the same is true for some sexual dysfunctions. Conditions that affect the face or the skin can cause social anxiety especially among adolescents, and developmental disabilities often lead to social anxiety for children as well. Life-threatening conditions like cancer also cause anxiety.
Poor coping skills (e.g., rigidity/inflexible problem solving, denial, avoidance, impulsivity, extreme self-expectation, negative thoughts, affective instability, and inability to focus on problems) are associated with anxiety. Anxiety is also linked and perpetuated by the person's own pessimistic outcome expectancy and how they cope with feedback negativity. Temperament (e.g., neuroticism) and attitudes (e.g. pessimism) have been found to be risk factors for anxiety.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by chronic and exaggerated worry and tension, much more than the typical anxiety that most people experience in their daily lives. People may have trembling, twitching, muscle tension, nausea, irritability, poor concentration, depression, fatigue, headaches, light-headedness, breathlessness or hot flashes.
A panic attack begins suddenly and unexpectedly and most often peaks within 10 to 20 minutes. At times, the resulting anxiety may last a couple of hours. Panic attacks can occur whether the person is calm or anxious. Recalling a past attack may trigger a new one. The frequency of panic attacks can vary, and for some people the fear of having an additional attack may lead them to avoid situations where escape may be difficult, such as being in a crowd or traveling in a car or bus.
Prolonged exposure therapy is a specific type of CBT used to treat PTSD and phobias. The goal of this therapy is to help patients overcome the overwhelming disstress they experience when reminded of past traumas or in confronting their fears. With the guidance of a licensed therapist, the patient is carefully reintroduced to the trauma memories or reminders. During the exposure, the therapist guides the patient to use coping techniques such as mindfulness or relaxation therapy/imagery. The goal of this therapy is to help patients realize that trauma-related memories (or phobias) are no longer dangerous and do not need to be avoided. This type of treatment usually lasts 8-16 weekly sessions.
Some medical conditions, like thyroid abnormalities and anemia, as well as certain medications, can produce severe anxiety. Examples of such medications include stimulants like methylphenidate (Ritalin) or amphetamine salts (Adderall), diabetes medications like metformin (Glucophage) and insulin, antimalarial medications like quinine, as well as corticosteroid withdrawal, such as withdrawal from dexamethasone (Decadron). As individuals with panic disorder seem to be at higher risk of having a heart valve abnormality called mitral valve prolapse (MVP), this possibility should be investigated by a doctor since MVP may dictate the need for special precautions when the individual is being treated for any dental problem. While the development of panic attacks has been attributed to the use of food additives like aspartame, alone or in combination with food dyes, more research is needed to better understand the role such substances may have on this disorder.
Benzodiazepines are often used to provide short-term relief of panic symptoms. Clonazepam (Klonopin) and lorazepam (Ativan) are examples of this group of medications. Although another benzodiazepine, alprazolam (Xanax), is often used to treat panic attacks, the short period of time that it works can cause the panic sufferer to have to take it multiple times each day. Benzodiazepines tend to be effective in decreasing panic attacks by up to 70%-75% almost immediately; however, this class of medications has a strong addiction potential and should be used with caution. Additional drawbacks include sedation, memory loss, and after several weeks, tolerance to their effects and withdrawal symptoms may occur.
Although many people breathe into a paper bag in an attempt to alleviate the hyperventilation that can be associated with panic, the benefit received may be the result of the individual thinking it will help (a placebo effect). Unfortunately, breathing into a paper bag while having trouble breathing can worsen symptoms when the hyperventilation is caused by a condition associated with oxygen deprivation, like an asthma attack or a heart attack.
Some research suggests that people who have panic disorder might be very sensitive to sensory experiences (such as sunlight, smells and changes in the weather), but there's not enough evidence yet to say for sure. Also it's not clear whether having a high level of sensitivity to these sorts of things is something that might cause you to develop panic disorder, or whether it may be an effect of having it.
They can. They are the best option for mild anxiety that most of us experience from time to time. There are many instructional books on relaxation exercises (often paired with deep breathing) and meditation, which is a form of relaxation. They are relatively simple to learn. These approaches can provide relief and can be used anywhere once the person understands the method. Mental health professionals can guide the person who needs a more personal approach to learning relaxation or meditation. More
People with panic disorder often worry about when the next attack will happen and actively try to prevent future attacks by avoiding places, situations, or behaviors they associate with panic attacks. Worry about panic attacks, and the effort spent trying to avoid attacks, cause significant problems in various areas of the person’s life, including the development of agoraphobia (see below).