Panic attacks can occur due to number of disorders including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, drug use disorder, depression, and medical problems. They can either be triggered or occur unexpectedly. Smoking, caffeine, and psychological stress increase the risk of having a panic attack. Before diagnosis, conditions that produce similar symptoms should be ruled out, such as hyperthyroidism, hyperparathyroidism, heart disease, lung disease, and drug use.
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)
Psychotherapy is at least as important as medication treatment of panic disorder. In fact, research shows that psychotherapy alone or the combination of medication and psychotherapy treatment are more effective than medications alone in overcoming panic attacks. To address anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy is widely accepted as an effective form of psychotherapy. This form of therapy seeks to help those with panic disorder identify and decrease the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that reinforce panic symptoms. Behavioral techniques that are often used to decrease anxiety include relaxation and gradually increasing the panic sufferer's exposure to situations that may have previously caused anxiety. Helping the anxiety sufferer understand the emotional issues that may have contributed to developing symptoms is called panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy and has also been found to be effective.
Generally, panic attacks are treated with reassurance and relaxation techniques. By definition, panic attacks last less than an hour, so many times a person already feels much better by the time he or she makes it to the doctor's office. Nevertheless, because the diagnosis is made by excluding more dangerous causes, people may be given medications during their attack.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in the United States. The most common type of anxiety disorder are called “simple phobias,” which includes phobias of things like snakes or being in a high place. Up to 9 percent of the population could be diagnosed with this disorder in any given year. Also common are social anxiety disorder (social phobia, about 7 percent) — being fearful and avoiding social situations — and generalized anxiety disorder (about 3 percent).
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.
A variety of medical and mental health professionals are qualified to assess and treat panic disorders. From purely medical professionals like primary care doctors, emergency room physicians to practitioners with mental health training like psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, a variety of health care providers may be involved in the care of panic disorder sufferers. Some practitioners will administer a self-test of screening questions to people whom they suspect may be suffering from panic disorder. In addition to looking for symptoms of repeated panic attacks using what is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), asking detailed questions about the sufferer's history and conducting a mental-status examination, mental health professionals will explore the possibility that the individual's symptoms are caused by another emotional illness instead of or in addition to the diagnosis of panic disorder. For example, people with an addiction often experience panic attacks, but those symptom characteristics generally only occur when the person is either intoxicated or withdrawing from the substance. Someone who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have panic attacks when reminded of trauma they experienced and in a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks may be triggered by their being unable to perform a compulsive behavior. The practitioner will also likely ensure that a physical examination and any other appropriate medical tests have been done recently to explore whether there is any medical problem that could be contributing to the occurrence of panic attacks. That is particularly important since many medical conditions may have panic attacks as a symptom and therefore require that the underlying medical condition be treated in order to alleviate the associated anxiety. Examples of that include the need for treatment with antibiotics for infections like Lyme disease or vitamin supplements to address certain forms of anemia.
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.
Anxiety disorders are treated through medication and therapy. You might feel embarrassed talking about the things you are feeling and thinking, but talking about it, say experts, is the best treatment. A particular form of therapy is considered most effective: cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT for short. Antidepressants — the types of medication most frequently used to treat depression — are the drugs that also work best for anxiety disorders.
Although each anxiety disorder has unique characteristics, most respond well to two types of treatment: psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” and medications. These treatments can be given alone or in combination. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy, can help a person learn a different way of thinking, reacting and behaving to help feel less anxious. Medications will not cure anxiety disorders, but can give significant relief from symptoms. The most commonly used medications are anti-anxiety medications (generally prescribed only for a short period of time) and antidepressants. Beta-blockers, used for heart conditions, are sometimes used to control physical symptoms of anxiety.
If left untreated, anxiety may worsen to the point at which the person's life is seriously affected by panic attacks and by attempts to avoid or conceal them. In fact, many people have had problems with friends and family, failed in school, and/or lost jobs while struggling to cope with this condition. There may be periods of spontaneous improvement in the episodes, but panic attacks do not usually go away unless the person receives treatments designed specifically to help people with these symptoms.