All human beings experience anxiety. In many cases, anxiety can have some beneficial and adaptive qualities such as pushing one to study for an upcoming difficult exam or propelling a person to flee from danger. Although experiencing some anxiety with life stressors and worries is normal, sometimes it can be difficult to manage and can feel overwhelming. Below we provide a list of tips and strategies to help individuals prevent anxiety from reaching a diagnosable level. Even though not everyone will struggle with a diagnosable anxiety disorder, learning strategies to aid in relief from anxiety and to manage the "normal" anxiety experienced in everyday life can help you live the life you desire.
Relaxation strategies, such as deep diaphragmatic breathing, have been shown to lower blood pressure, slow heart rate, and reduce tension that is commonly associated with stress. Engaging in relaxation strategies regularly can equip you to reduce anxiety when it occurs, by allowing your body to switch from its anxious state to a more relaxed and calm state in response to stressors.
Panic disorder sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some family members have it while others don’t. Researchers have found that several parts of the brain, as well as biological processes, play a key role in fear and anxiety. Some researchers think that people with panic disorder misinterpret harmless bodily sensations as threats. By learning more about how the brain and body functions in people with panic disorder, scientists may be able to create better treatments. Researchers are also looking for ways in which stress and environmental factors may play a role.
Often, a combination of psychotherapy and medications produces good results in the treatment of panic disorder. Improvement is usually noticed in about two to three months. Thus, appropriate treatment for panic disorder can prevent panic attacks or at least substantially reduce their severity and frequency, bringing significant relief to 70%-90% of people with the illness. More than 18% of people who are assessed but not treated for this condition tend to relapse in less than two years. As these statistics indicate, access to appropriate mental health care is key to a positive prognosis for people who suffer from panic attacks. Therefore, it is imperative to alleviate the well documented economic and racial disparities that exist in having and using access to care. Combating other social disparities, like educational, employment, housing, and criminal justice, is also seen as being important to improving the prognosis for recovering from panic attacks and other health problems.
Anxiety disorders fall into a set of distinct diagnoses, depending upon the symptoms and severity of the anxiety the person experiences. Anxiety disorders share the anticipation of a future threat, but differ in the types of situations or objects that induce fear or avoidance behavior. Different types of anxiety disorder also have different types of unhealthy thoughts associated with them.
You may experience one or more panic attacks, yet be otherwise perfectly happy and healthy. Or your panic attacks may occur as part of another disorder, such as panic disorder, social phobia, or depression. Regardless of the cause, panic attacks are treatable. There are strategies you can use to cope with the symptoms as well as effective treatments.
People with panic disorder have sudden and repeated attacks of fear that last for several minutes or longer. These are called panic attacks. Panic attacks are characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. A person may also have a strong physical reaction during a panic attack. It may feel like having a heart attack. Panic attacks can occur at any time, and many people with panic disorder worry about and dread the possibility of having another attack.
In fact, some studies have suggested that people with chronic anxiety disorders have an increased prevalence of CAD—that is, chronic anxiety may be a risk factor for CAD. So doctors should not be too quick to simply write the chest pain off as being “simply” due to anxiety. They should at least entertain the possibility that both disorders may be present and should do an appropriate evaluation.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by unwanted thoughts or behaviors that seem impossible to stop or control. If you have OCD, you may be troubled by obsessions, such as a recurring worry that you forgot to turn off the oven or that you might hurt someone. You may also suffer from uncontrollable compulsions, such as washing your hands over and over.
The cause of anxiety disorders is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Anxiety can stem itself from certain factors: genetics, medicinal side-effects, shortness of oxygen. Risk factors include a history of child abuse, family history of mental disorders, and poverty. Anxiety disorders often occur with other mental disorders, particularly major depressive disorder, personality disorder, and substance use disorder. To be diagnosed symptoms typically need to be present at least six months, be more than would be expected for the situation, and decrease functioning. Other problems that may result in similar symptoms including hyperthyroidism, heart disease, caffeine, alcohol, or cannabis use, and withdrawal from certain drugs, among others.
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Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience spontaneous seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and are very preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack. Panic attacks occur unexpectedly, sometimes even when waking up from sleep. Panic disorder usually begins in adulthood (after age 20), but children can also have panic disorder and many children experience panic-like symptoms (“fearful spells”).
While separation anxiety is a normal stage of development, if anxieties intensify or are persistent enough to get in the way of school or other activities, your child may have separation anxiety disorder. Children with separation anxiety disorder may become agitated at just the thought of being away from mom or dad and complain of sickness to avoid playing with friends or going to school.
According to the American Psychological Association, "most specialists agree that a combination of cognitive and behavioral therapies are the best treatment for panic disorder. Medication might also be appropriate in some cases." The first part of therapy is largely informational; many people are greatly helped by simply understanding exactly what panic disorder is and how many others suffer from it. Many people who suffer from panic disorder are worried that their panic attacks mean they are "going crazy" or that the panic might induce a heart attack. Cognitive restructuring helps people replace those thoughts with more realistic, positive ways of viewing the attacks. Avoidance behavior is one of the key aspects that prevent people with frequent panic attacks from functioning healthily. Exposure therapy, which includes repeated and prolonged confrontation with feared situations and body sensations, helps weaken anxiety responses to these external and internal stimuli and reinforce realistic ways of viewing panic symptoms.
Expected panic attacks are those which occur when you are exposed to one of your triggers. For example, if you have a fear of flying you may have a panic attack when you board a plane. Expected panic attacks are again broken down into two categories: situationally bound (cued) in which a person is anticipating exposure to a particular trigger (as with our flying example), or situationally predisposed, in which a panic attack does not always occur when exposed to the feared situation.
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.
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.
The review, conducted by researchers at Cambridge University in England, also found that people with chronic health conditions were more likely to experience anxiety. According to the review, almost 11 percent of people with heart disease in Western countries reported having generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). In addition, 32 percent of those with multiple sclerosis had some kind of anxiety disorder. (3)
4) Ice, Ice Baby. For nighttime panic attacks, Kirstie Craine Ruiz keeps about 4 ready-to-go ice packs—2 big and 2 small– in her freezer. When she feels panic coming she puts two small ones in her hand and the 2 large ones on my lower back. “If your heart is really racing and your breathing is bad, I would suggest taking the one on your belly and rubbing it from the middle of your chest down to the bottom of your belly, slowly, and over and over until your heart rate starts to mellow (over your shirt, of course- you don’t want to make yourself freezing!). I feel like when I do this, it literally moves the hyper energy down from my chest and alleviates any chest pain. This method always helps me when it feels like my heart is in my throat. Once you feel as though you can breathe again, place the packs on your lower belly or lower back, and in the palms of your hands. I don’t know if it’s pressure points but holding small smooth ice packs in both hands with palms up, does wonders for my panic, to this day.”
^ 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
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.
People with panic disorder may also experience comorbid bipolar disorder, alcohol or substance use disorder, or medical problems that accompany their panic. It is common for individuals with panic disorder to have thyroid problems, respiratory issues, heart problems, or feelings of dizziness (APA, 2013). In general, it has been reported that 93.7% of people with panic disorder meet criteria for at least one other medical or mental disorder (Arch, Kirk, & Craske, 2017). That being said, comorbidity is not inevitable with panic disorder and it is important to discuss your symptoms thoroughly with a medical professional. Additionally, the causality of the link between panic disorders and medical problems remains unclear.
The causes of anxiety attacks are not well understood. Some traumatic life events can set off anxiety attacks if the person is prone to depression or anxiety disorders. Also, medical conditions and some medications may trigger anxiety attacks. Many believe anxiety attacks run in families with a genetic predisposition. In other words, if your mom and her sister had anxiety attacks, it’s likely you will, too.
But over time, you may find yourself experiencing more panic attacks, in a variety of circumstances. Most of these will not be entirely unexpected. Most subsequent attacks occur in response to various cues such as entering a crowded area; a traffic jam; or simply worrying about having a panic attack. But there may still be some surprises: for instance, you might have a nocturnal panic attack, which wakes you out of a sound sleep. Or you might find yourself experiencing odd feelings of depersonalization as you kill some time with friends or colleagues.
The disorder in younger children is less likely to have the symptoms that involve ways of thinking (cognitive symptoms). For example, panic attacks in children may result in the child's grades declining, decreased school attendance, and avoiding that and other separations from their parents. Both children and teens with panic disorder are further at risk for developing substance abuse and depression as well as suicidal thoughts, plans, and/or actions.
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.
Because symptoms are so severe, many people who experience a panic attack may believe they are having a heart attack or other life-threatening illness and may go to a hospital ER. Panic attacks may be expected, such as a response to a feared object, or unexpected, apparently occurring for no reason. The mean age for onset of panic disorder is 22-23. Panic attacks may occur with other mental disorders such as depression or PTSD.
Many factors are linked to the development of panic attacks and panic disorder. In terms of personality, those who are more prone to anxiety, and more likely to believe that anxiety is harmful, are more likely to experience panic attacks. Stressors and interpersonal issues, such as a death in the family or adverse life events, tend to be seen in the months preceding a panic attack.
Most people have experienced fleeting symptoms associated with anxiety disorders at some point in their life. Such feelings — such as having a shortness of breath, feeling your heart pounding for no apparent reason, experiencing dizziness or tunnel vision — usually pass as quickly as they come and don’t readily return. But when they do return time and time again, that can be a sign that the fleeting feelings of anxiety have turned into an anxiety disorder.
There has been recent interest in using psychoactive substances in conjunction with psychotherapy; the two that have received increased attention have been cannabis (marijuana) and methylenedioxymethamfetamine (MDMA, known as ecstasy or molly). These drugs are somewhat controversial, given that they also have psychoactive, i.e. "feeling high" effects. However, with increasing legalization of marijuana it is important to address whether these substances could be used to alleviate clinical symptoms of anxiety. While there have been only a few randomized clinical trials for these drugs, certain forms of cannabis have demonstrated positive effects on anxiety. Specifically, cannabidiol, a component of cannabis has been effective for Social Anxiety Disoder, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has helped PTSD patients. However, the plant form of cannabis has not shown great efficacy and has potential to worsen symptoms, so should be used with caution and only under supervision of a provider. MDMA has shown some positive effects for PTSD, but should only be used as an adjunct to psychotherapy, again under clinical care.
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.
An anxiety or panic attack often comes on suddenly, with symptoms peaking within 10 minutes. For doctors to diagnose a panic attack, they look for at least four of the following signs: sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, a choking sensation, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, fear of losing your mind, fear of dying, feeling hot or cold, numbness or tingling, a racing heart (heart palpitations), and feeling unusually detached from yourself.
It should be noted that finding the right strategy that works for you to control your anxiety is important. Maybe you feel that you do not have the time to schedule "me time" with your busy schedule or kids, and you need to find another way to reduce your anxiety. A friend or therapist could be a great resource to turn to if you believe you need help with finding the right strategies to reduce your anxiety.
SSRIs and SNRIs are commonly used to treat depression, but they are also helpful for the symptoms of panic disorder. They may take several weeks to start working. These medications may also cause side-effects, such as headaches, nausea, or difficulty sleeping. These side effects are usually not severe for most people, especially if the dose starts off low and is increased slowly over time. Talk to your doctor about any side effects that you have.
Warren: With anxiety to the point where it’s part of a disorder — let’s say generalized anxiety disorder, mostly characterized by anxiety and worry about a whole bunch of different situations — we would treat it by teaching a patient about the role of worry in creating the symptoms and how to manage the worry. That sometimes involves challenging unrealistic thoughts or working to increase one’s ability to tolerate uncertainty, which is a big part of anxiety.
But some think that nature isn’t as much of an influence as nurture. People theorize that women tend to be socialized in a way that gives them permission to openly discuss emotion. So women may feel more comfortable admitting to feelings than men, who tend to be socialized to keep their feelings to themselves and are less likely to confess to emotional problems. Women may therefore get diagnosed with anxiety disorders more often than men. (9)