With panic attacks, we might show them a diagram and explain the fight-or-flight response; their mind or body is trying to help them. If you’ve had a panic attack that came out of the blue, you might become afraid of lightheadedness and avoid activities that spur adrenaline. So we might hyperventilate for a minute in a controlled way to get to the point where they’re not afraid of their own bodily sensation. We work on internal avoidance of those cues that become scary, and desensitize them.
If you believe you are suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, your doctor will perform a variety of physical exams as well as mental health checks. You might first go to your doctor complaining of constant headaches and trouble sleeping. After he or she rules out any underlying medical conditions that are causing your physical symptoms, s/he may refer you to a mental health specialist for further diagnosis. Your mental health specialist will ask you a series of psychological questions to get a better understanding of your condition. To be clinically diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, your doctor and/or mental health provider will assess the length of time you have been suffering from excessive worry and anxiety, your difficulty in controlling your anxiety, how your anxiety interferes with your daily life, and if you are experiencing fatigue, restlessness, irritability, muscle tension, sleep problems, and difficulty concentrating.
A first panic attack is usually unexpected, and comes "out of the blue." It may scare you so much that you start taking steps to protect yourself from future attacks. Maybe you start avoiding places that remind you of your first attack. Maybe you only go out after making sure you have your cell phone, a bottle of water, and other objects you hope will keep you safe. Maybe you try hard to "stop thinking about it." You work hard to keep the panic at bay.
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.
When the medical personnel take my vitals, my heart rate has soared above 136 and my breathing is rapid and short. The sweating has slowed, but I am nauseous and dry heaving. It takes about 30 minutes for the aides to update my stats and explain that they think I may be having a minor heart attack or have blood clots going to my heart. They say I need to get to a hospital.
The problem with catastrophizing is that it is rigid thinking. Suppose you worry that you’re having a heart attack every time you experience some chest pain. It’s usually easy for a health professional to distinguish between anxiety and a heart attack. But catastrophizing resists new information. Even though, your doctor has done tests in the past and has reassured you many times, you worry that this time will be different. Your exaggerated fear is preventing you from changing your thinking, and is keeping you stuck.
Exposure therapy has been around for a long time. It involves exposing the patient in a safe and controlled environment to physical sensations they experience during a panic attack much the same way you‘d expose in small increments a person with a fear of trains or puppies or snakes to the things that scares them. With panic disorder, there’s often a heightened sensitivity to ordinary physical sensations such as racing heart, stomach ache or feeling faint. In exposure therapy, the therapist will ask you to mimic activities—like running around or doing jumping jacks or holding your breath—to cause panic symptoms. The idea is that by repeating the things that may trigger a panic attack those triggers will eventually lose their power.
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.
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.
Anxiety can be either a short-term 'state' or a long-term personality "trait". Trait anxiety reflects a stable tendency across the lifespan of responding with acute, state anxiety in the anticipation of threatening situations (whether they are actually deemed threatening or not). A meta-analysis showed that a high level of neuroticism is a risk factor for development of anxiety symptoms and disorders. Such anxiety may be conscious or unconscious.
How do you know if you're having a panic or anxiety attack? Panic attacks and anxiety attacks share some symptoms, but they differ in intensity, duration, and whether or not there is a trigger. Some treatments are similar and include therapy, stress management, and breathing exercises. Learn more about the differences between a panic attack and an anxiety attack here. Read now
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).