As with most behavioral illnesses, the causes of panic attacks are many. Certainly there is evidence that the tendency to have panic attacks can sometimes be inherited. However, there is also evidence that panic may be a learned response and that the attacks can be initiated in otherwise healthy people simply given the right set of circumstances. Research into the causes of panic attacks is ongoing.
Nevertheless, if you are struggling with symptoms of an anxiety disorder it is not uncommon to feel alone and misunderstood. Because the fear that people with an anxiety disorder have is not experienced by others, they may not understand why, for example, being in a crowd of people, not being able to wash your hands after meeting a new person, or driving through the street where you got in a car accident can be really anxiety-provoking for someone with an anxiety disorder. People may comment that "there is no reason to worry about it" or that you "should just let it go".
The above statements are two examples of what a panic attack might feel like. Panic attacks may be symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Historically, panic has been described in ancient civilizations, as with the reaction of the subjects of Ramses II to his death in 1213 BC in Egypt, and in Greek mythology as the reaction that people had to seeing Pan, the half man, half goat god of flocks and shepherds. In medieval then Renaissance Europe, severe anxiety was grouped with depression in descriptions of what was then called melancholia. During the 19th century, panic symptoms began to be described as neurosis, and eventually the word panic began being used in psychiatry.
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.
A panic attack is an abrupt surge of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes, and during which time a variety of psychological and physical symptoms occur. These symptoms include rapid heart rate, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, hot flashes, and lightheadedness—as well as a sense of impending doom, chills, nausea, abdominal pain, chest pain, headache, and numbness or tingling.
It's important to note that everyone feels anxiety to some degree regularly throughout their life - fear and anxiety are adaptive and helpful emotions that can function to help us notice danger or threat, keep us safe, and help us adapt to the environment. Anxiety disorders represent states when fear or anxiety becomes severe or extreme, to the extent that it causes an individual significant distress, or impairs their ability to function in important facets of life such as work, school, or relationships. It is also important that risk factors don't at all imply that anxiety is anyone's fault; anxiety disorders are a very common difficulty that people experience. In this section, we will review risk factors for anxiety disorders. There are many potential risk factors for anxiety disorders, and most people likely experience multiple different combinations of risk factors, such as neurobiological factors, genetic markers, environmental factors, and life experiences. However, we do not yet fully understand what causes some people to have anxiety disorders.
These physiological responses can actually help us to survive. However, sometimes we experience these physiological responses, like an increased heartbeat, that are not in the presence of danger at all, but something else entirely. In these cases, our bodies can misinterpret these physiological signals as being indicators of danger or a "true threat." For example, people may experience learned anxiety due to previous associations between elevated heart rate and panic attacks and may misinterpret bodily sensations as signs of imminent death or loss of control. In this way, one may start to fear these physiological responses, which is what we call "fear of fear" (Craske & Barlow, 2007). "Fear of fear" maintains or perpetuates panic attacks and panic symptoms, which becomes a vicious cycle. In other words, you experience an increased heart rate, which you interpret as negative, which makes you feel anxious, which further makes your heart rate increase and it often spirals from there. These associations may almost happen automatically, even without conscious thought, but this is what is likely going on behind the scenes.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by uncontrollable anxious thoughts or behaviors. Individuals with OCD are plagued by persistent, unwelcome thoughts and images or by the urgent need to engage in certain rituals. Some OCD sufferers may only have obsessive thoughts without the related rituals. The disturbing thoughts or images (e.g., fear of germs) are called obsessions, and the rituals performed to try to get rid of them (e.g., hand washing) are called compulsions. For example, people who are obsessed with germs may wash their hands excessively. The individual is not happy to be performing the ritual behaviors but finds this to be the only way to get temporary relief from the obsessive thought.
Fear and anxiety are part of life. You may feel anxious before you take a test or walk down a dark street. This kind of anxiety is useful - it can make you more alert or careful. It usually ends soon after you are out of the situation that caused it. But for millions of people in the United States, the anxiety does not go away, and gets worse over time. They may have chest pains or nightmares. They may even be afraid to leave home. These people have anxiety disorders. Types include
Practice relaxation techniques. When practiced regularly, activities such as yoga, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation strengthen the body’s relaxation response—the opposite of the stress response involved in anxiety and panic. And not only do these relaxation practices promote relaxation, but they also increase feelings of joy and equanimity.
EMDR is a psychotherapy that alleviates the distress and emotional disturbances that are elicited from the memories of traumatic events. It is primarily administered to treat PTSD, and is very similar to exposure therapy. This therapy helps patients to process the trauma so that they can heal. During the therapy, patients pay attention to a back and forth movement or sound while recounting their traumatic memories. Patients continue these sessions until the memory becomes less distressing. EMDR sessions typically last 50-90 minutes and are administered weekly for 1-3 months, although many patients report experiencing a reduction of symptoms after a few sessions of EMDR.
The psychotherapy component of treatment for panic disorder is at least as important as medication. In fact, research shows that psychotherapy alone or the combination of medication and psychotherapy treatment are more effective than medication alone in the long-term management of panic attacks. In overcoming anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy is widely accepted as an effective form of psychotherapy treatment, for both adults and children. This form of psychotherapy seeks to help those with panic disorder identify and decrease the irrational thoughts and behaviors that reinforce panic symptoms and can be done either individually, in group therapy, in partner-assisted therapy, and even over the Internet. Behavioral techniques that are often used to decrease anxiety include relaxation techniques (like breathing techniques or guided imagery) and gradually increasing exposure to situations that may have previously triggered anxiety in the panic disorder sufferer. Helping the person with anxiety understand how to handle the emotional forces that may have contributed to developing symptoms (panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy) has also been found to be effective in teaching an individual with panic disorder how to prevent an anxiety attack or how to calm down in order to decrease or stop a panic attack once it starts.
Without treatment, panic attacks tend to occur repeatedly for months or years. While they typically begin in young adulthood, the symptoms may arise earlier or later in life in some people. Complications, which are symptoms that can develop as a result of continued panic attacks and develop into other mental illnesses, may include specific irrational fears (phobias), especially of leaving home (agoraphobia) and avoidance of social situations. Other possible complications can include depression, work or school problems, suicidal thoughts or actions, financial problems, and alcohol or other substance abuse. For children and adolescents, panic disorder can even interfere with normal development. Panic disorder and other anxiety disorders also predispose sufferers to developing heart or gastrointestinal diseases, high blood pressure or diabetes, having more severe symptoms if they have a respiratory disease, and of dying prematurely.
Anxiety disorders respond very well to therapy—and often in a relatively short amount of time. The specific treatment approach depends on the type of anxiety disorder and its severity. But in general, most anxiety disorders are treated with therapy, medication, or some combination of the two. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure therapy are types of behavioral therapy, meaning they focus on behavior rather than on underlying psychological conflicts or issues from the past. They can help with issues such as panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and phobias.
I think I had an anxiety attack the other day, but I’m not sure. I was at the movies and felt scared, like something or someone was going to attack me. I drove home and felt like I was scared of the dark and was having trouble breathing and focusing on driving. After dropping off my bf and driving home, I started crying and hyperventilating, and felt detached from the world, like nothing mattered, and felt like I was going to die. It took me two hours to fall asleep and I had nightmares. The episode was over by morning, but I’m concerned that it will happen again.
People often fear the worst when they're having an anxiety attack. Most of the time, there’s no underlying physical problem, such as a real heart attack. But you should get the medical all clear if you have repeat anxiety attacks, just to be sure you don’t need additional treatment. Then find a cognitive behavioral therapist with experience treating anxiety to help you through.
It is 3:00 in the morning. I wake up from a dead sleep, sit straight up, and immediately know something is wrong. I am sweating, nauseous, and feel as if someone has dumped a bucket of ice water onto my chest. I feel it spill down my abdomen and through my arms and legs. My chest feels as though a giant’s hand is squeezing it with the intention of taking my life.
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 person with separation anxiety disorder is excessively fearful or anxious about separation from those with whom he or she is attached. The feeling is beyond what is appropriate for the person’s age, persists (at least four weeks in children and six months in adults) and causes problems functioning. A person with separation anxiety disorder may be persistently worried about losing the person closest to him or her, may be reluctant or refuse to go out or sleep away from home or without that person, or may experience nightmares about separation. Physical symptoms of distress often develop in childhood, but symptoms can carry though adulthood.
Heredity, other biological factors, stressful life events, and thinking in a way that exaggerates relatively normal bodily reactions are all believed to play a role in the onset of panic disorder. Some research suggests panic attacks occur when a “suffocation alarm mechanism” in the brain is activated, falsely reporting that death is imminent. The exact cause or causes of panic disorder are unknown and are the subject of intense scientific investigation.
While obsessive-compulsive disorder is not officially classified by the American Psychological Association as an anxiety disorder, it shares many traits with common anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder. In both conditions, you may know that your thoughts are irrational, but you feel unable to stop thinking them. Often, but not always, these thoughts may concern cleanliness, sex, or religion.
In an anxiety-related disorder, your fear or worry does not go away and can get worse over time. It can influence your life to the extent that it can interfere with daily activities like school, work and/or relationships. Fear, stress, and anxiety are "normal feelings and experiences" but they are completely different than suffering from any of the seven diagnosable disorders plus substance-induced anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and trauma- or stressor-related disorders.
Demographic factors also impact risk for anxiety disorders. While there is not a strong consensus, research suggests that risk for anxiety disorders decreases over the lifespan with lower risk being demonstrated later in life. Women are significantly more likely to experience anxiety disorders. Another robust biological and sociodemographic risk factor for anxiety disorders is gender, as women are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety. Overall symptom severity has also been shown to be more severe in women compared to men, and women with anxiety disorders typically report a lower quality of life than men. This sex difference in the prevalence and severity of anxiety disorders that puts women at a disadvantage over men is not specific to anxiety disorders, but is also found in depression and other stress-related adverse health outcomes (i.e. obesity and cardiometabolic disease). Basic science and clinical studies suggest that ovarian hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, and their fluctuations may play an important role in this sex difference in anxiety disorder prevalence and severity. While changes in estrogen and progesterone, over the month as well as over the lifetime, are linked to change in anxiety symptom severity and have been shown to impact systems implicated in the etiology of anxiety disorders (i.e. the stress axis), it still remains unclear how these hormones and their fluctuations increase women's vulnerability to anxiety.
Because there are many medical conditions that can cause anxiety attack signs and symptoms, such as the strong sensations and feelings associated with anxiety attacks, it’s wise to discuss them with your doctor. If your doctor has attributed your anxiety attacks to stress and anxiety, you can feel confident that your doctor’s diagnosis is correct. Anxiety attacks and their signs and symptoms are relatively easy to diagnose and aren’t easily confused with other medical conditions.
Panic Disorder: People with panic disorder have panic attacks with feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. During the attacks, individuals may feel like they can't breathe, have lost control, are having a heart attack or even that they are dying. Physical symptoms may include chest pain, dizziness, nausea, sweating, tingling or numbness, and a racing heartbeat. Some people will have one isolated attack, while others will develop a long term panic disorder; either way, there is often high anxiety between attacks because there is no way of knowing when the next one will occur. Panic disorders often begin early in adulthood. Many people with panic disorder also suffer from agoraphobia (abnormal fear of open or public places.). See more on Panic Attacks.
Specialized coils that targetes deeper brain regions than rTMS. A patient wears a cushioned helmet (similar to the type of helmet worn during an fMRI). The coil used in dTMS was approved by the FDA in 2013 for treating depression but is currently being studied for the treatment of anxiety disorders such as OCD. The procedue is administered for 20 minutes for 4-6 weeks. Patients can resume their daily lives right after each treatment.
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.