In people with anxiety disorders, the brain circuitry that controls the threat response goes awry. At the heart of the circuit is the amygdala, a structure that flags incoming signals as worrisome and communicates with other parts of the brain to put the body on alert for danger. Early life events, especially traumatic ones, can program the circuitry so that it is oversensitive and sends out alarms too frequently and with only minor provocations. Survival mandates a system for perceiving threats and taking quick, automatic action, but those with anxiety see threats where there are none, perhaps because emotional memories color their perceptions.
Everyone has probably experienced panic, or something like it, at least once in their lifetime: on a disturbingly turbulent plane, or before giving an important presentation, or after realizing you hit reply all when you really, really should not have. We all know the paralyzed feeling and the heightened physical sensations. But panic attacks and panic disorder take a different shape. Panic attacks have many physical symptoms and tend to peak around 10 minutes, and may last for 30. Panic disorder is diagnosed by the frequency of these attacks, and the presence of a fear of having them.
^ Anxiety: management of anxiety (panic disorder, with or without agoraphobia, and generalised anxiety disorder) in adults in primary, secondary and community care. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Clinical Guideline 22. Issue date: April 2007 "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 August 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-21. ISBN 1-84629-400-2
While the use of drugs in treating panic attacks can be very successful, it is generally recommended that people also be in some form of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Drug treatments are usually used throughout the duration of panic attack symptoms, and discontinued after the patient has been free of symptoms for at least six months. It is usually safest to withdraw from these drugs gradually while undergoing therapy. While drug treatment seems promising for children and adolescents, they are at an increased risk of suicide while taking these medications and their well-being should be monitored closely.
David D. Burns recommends breathing exercises for those suffering from anxiety. One such breathing exercise is a 5-2-5 count. Using the stomach (or diaphragm)—and not the chest—inhale (feel the stomach come out, as opposed to the chest expanding) for 5 seconds. As the maximal point at inhalation is reached, hold the breath for 2 seconds. Then slowly exhale, over 5 seconds. Repeat this cycle twice and then breathe 'normally' for 5 cycles (1 cycle = 1 inhale + 1 exhale). The point is to focus on the breathing and relax the heart rate. Regular diaphragmatic breathing may be achieved by extending the outbreath by counting or humming.
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)
Some people have only one or two attacks and are never bothered again. Panic attacks can occur with other psychiatric disorders. In panic disorders, however, the panic attacks return repeatedly and the person develops an intense fear of having another attack. Without help, this "fear of fear" can make people avoid certain situations and can interfere with their lives even when they are not having a panic attack. Therefore, it is very important to recognize the problem and get help.
Because involuntary panic attacks can be caused by other medical conditions, such as mitral valve prolapse, thyroid problems, hyperglycemia, side effects from certain types of medications, recreational drug use (such as marijuana), stimulants, etc., it’s best to discuss your panic attacks and symptoms with your doctor to rule out any medical cause.
Please note that it is not a good idea to attempt to diagnose or label a friend or family member. Only a mental health professional can diagnose an anxiety disorder, as many disorders have overlapping features, and can go together with other types of mental health difficulties. However, if you notice signs of anxiety, or just feel that something is not quite right with someone that you care about, it's a good idea to reach out to ask the person how they are feeling. You could start with something neutral and supportive like, "It seems like you haven't been quite yourself lately. Is there something going on that you want to talk about?"
There are things that people with panic disorder can do to assist with their own recovery. Since substances like caffeine, alcohol, and illicit drugs can worsen panic attacks, those things should be avoided. Other tips for managing panic attacks include engaging in aerobic exercise and stress-management techniques like deep breathing and yoga on a regular basis, since these activities have also been found to help decrease panic attacks.
The symptoms of a panic attack may cause the person to feel that their body is failing. The symptoms can be understood as follows. First, there is frequently the sudden onset of fear with little provoking stimulus. This leads to a release of adrenaline (epinephrine) which brings about the fight-or-flight response when the body prepares for strenuous physical activity. This leads to an increased heart rate (tachycardia), rapid breathing (hyperventilation) which may be perceived as shortness of breath (dyspnea), and sweating. Because strenuous activity rarely ensues, the hyperventilation leads to a drop in carbon dioxide levels in the lungs and then in the blood. This leads to shifts in blood pH (respiratory alkalosis or hypocapnia), causing compensatory metabolic acidosis activating chemosensing mechanisms which translate this pH shift into autonomic and respiratory responses. The person him/herself may overlook the hyperventilation, having become preoccupied with the associated somatic symptoms.
There is evidence for panic disorder-like diagnoses across cultures, such as ataque de nervios in Latin American communities. Research has shown that African Americans experience more functional impairment (i.e., impact on one's ability to complete daily activities) than non-Latino white Americans. This is not an exhaustive list of cultural factors related to panic disorder, but it does highlight cultural differences that may affect the presentation of panic disorder as well as individual differences in the interpretation of panic symptoms (Asnaani, Gutner, Hinton, & Hofmann, 2009; Hofmann & Hinton, 2014; Lewis-Fernández, et al., 2010).
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.
Palpitations are uncomfortable sensations of the heart beating hard, rapidly, or irregularly. Some types of palpitations are benign, while others are more serious. Palpitations are diagnosed by taking the patient history and by performing an EKG or heart monitoring along with blood tests. An electrophysiology study may also be performed. Treatment of palpitations may include lifestyle changes, medication, ablation, or implantation of a pacemaker. The prognosis if palpitations depends on the underlying cause.
Since panic attacks are caused by overly apprehensive behavior or chronic stress, addressing our overly apprehensive behavior and stress can stop and prevent panic attacks, and eventually, panic disorder. The combination of good self-help information and therapy is the most effective way of addressing overly apprehensive behavior. Accessing good self-help information and applying it is a good way to reduce stress.
Separation anxiety disorder: Separation anxiety is often thought of as something that only children deal with; however, adults can also be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder. People who have separation anxiety disorder have fears about being parted from people to whom they are attached. They often worry that some sort of harm or something untoward will happen to their attachment figures while they are separated. This fear leads them to avoid being separated from their attachment figures and to avoid being alone. People with separation anxiety may have nightmares about being separated from attachment figures or experience physical symptoms when separation occurs or is anticipated.