Once you are under enough stress, almost anything can set off a panic attack. Suppose you are under a lot of stress, but still managing. If you add even more stress, your brain will begin to feel under siege. Your body will respond by releasing adrenaline as part of the fight or flight response. That will cause more anxiety, which will create a vicious feedback that will turn into a panic disorder.
Panic attacks involve sudden feelings of terror that strike without warning. These episodes can occur at any time, even during sleep. People experiencing a panic attack may believe they are having a heart attack or they are dying or going crazy. The fear and terror that a person experiences during a panic attack are not in proportion to the true situation and may be unrelated to what is happening around them. Most people with panic attacks experience several of the following symptoms:
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.
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.
Your health care provider can determine if your panic disorder is caused by an underlying medical condition, such as heart disease or thyroid problems. This may require blood tests and an electrocardiogram (ECG). A complete assessment should also include questions about your caffeine and alcohol consumption, and any substance use, which can contribute to an anxiety disorder.
Behavioral choices can also significantly impact risk, as excessive tobacco or caffeine use can increase anxiety, whereas regular exercise can decrease anxiety. Specific temperament and personality traits also may confer risk of having an anxiety disorder. With regards to temperament, shyness and behavioral inhibition in childhood can increase risk of developing an anxiety disorder later in life. With regard to personality traits, the Five Factor Model of Personality consists of five broad trait domains including Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. An individual higher on trait Neuroticism or low on Conscientiousness is at a higher risk for all anxiety disorders, and an individual low on trait Extraversion is at a higher risk of developing social phobia and agoraphobia. Some more narrow personality traits have also been found to relate to risk for anxiety, including anxiety sensitivity, a negative or hostile attributional style, and self-criticism. Personality disorders have also been shown to relate to increased risk for anxiety disorders.
Persistent and excessive fear of a specific object or situation, such as flying, heights, animals, toilets, or seeing blood. Fear is cued by the presence or anticipation of the object/situation and exposure to the phobic stimulus results in an immediate fear response or panic attack. The fear is disproportionate to the actual danger posed by the object or situation. Commonly, adults with specific phobias will recognize that their fear is excessive or unreasonable.
There are a number of things people do to help cope with symptoms of anxiety disorders and make treatment more effective. Stress management techniques and meditation can be helpful. Support groups (in-person or online) can provide an opportunity to share experiences and coping strategies. Learning more about the specifics of a disorder and helping family and friends to understand better can also be helpful. Avoid caffeine, which can worsen symptoms, and check with your doctor about any medications.
The emotional effects of anxiety may include "feelings of apprehension or dread, trouble concentrating, feeling tense or jumpy, anticipating the worst, irritability, restlessness, watching (and waiting) for signs (and occurrences) of danger, and, feeling like your mind's gone blank" as well as "nightmares/bad dreams, obsessions about sensations, déjà vu, a trapped-in-your-mind feeling, and feeling like everything is scary."
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.
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.
Some research suggests that your body's natural fight-or-flight response to danger is involved in panic attacks. For example, if a grizzly bear came after you, your body would react instinctively. Your heart rate and breathing would speed up as your body prepared for a life-threatening situation. Many of the same reactions occur in a panic attack. But it's unknown why a panic attack occurs when there's no obvious danger present.
Anxiety attacks usually peak within 10 minutes, and they rarely last more than 30 minutes. But during that short time, the terror can be so severe that you feel as if you’re about to die or totally lose control. The physical symptoms of anxiety attacks are themselves so frightening that many people believe they’re having a heart attack. After an anxiety attack is over, you may be worried about having another one, particularly in a public place where help isn’t available or you can’t easily escape.
Some benefits of benzodiazepines are that they are effective in relieving anxiety and take effect more quickly than antidepressant medications often prescribed for anxiety. Some drawbacks of benzodiazepines are that people can build up a tolerance to them if they are taken over a long period of time and they may need higher and higher doses to get the same effect. Some people may even become dependent on them.