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.
Those who experience panic attacks are often nervous about having additional episodes. To avoid having a panic attack in a public space, they may avoid places like shopping malls or other crowded spots where previous incidents may have occurred or places that they fear will not allow them immediate access to help, such as an airplane or movie theater. This avoidance when severe may lead to agoraphobia, the inability to leave familiar, safe surroundings because of intense fear and anxiety about having a panic attack outside the home.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the handbook used for diagnosis of mental health disorders, and is widely used by health care professionals around the world. For each disorder, the DSM has a description of symptoms and other criteria to diagnose the disorder. The DSM is important, because it allows different clinicians and/or researchers to use the same language when discussing mental health disorders. The first DSM was published in 1952 and has been updated several times after new research and knowledge became available. In 2013, the most recent version of the DSM, the DSM-5, was released. There are a few important differences with its predecessor DSM-IV regarding anxiety disorders. First, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is not part of the anxiety disorders any more, but now has its own category: Obsessive-Compulsive, Stereotypic and related disorders. Second, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) now also has its own category: Trauma and Stressor-related Disorders.
If you’ve been experiencing panic attacks or think you may have panic disorder, we encourage you to seek diagnosis and treatment from your doctor and a mental health professional. Although panic attacks can feel like a debilitating and embarrassing condition, it is important to remember that you aren’t alone and your mental health is nothing to be embarrassed about. There are a variety of resources available to you for advice and support, both online and in the form of support groups. For more information, ask your healthcare provider about what is available in your area and check out the links below:
In the midst of a panic attack, it’s inevitable that you’ll feel like you’ve lost control of your body, but muscle relaxation techniques allow you to gain back some of that control. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a simple but effective technique for panic and anxiety disorders. Start by clenching your fist and holding this clench until the count of 10. Once you get to 10, release the clench and let your hand relax completely. Next, try the same technique in your feet and then gradually work your way up your body clenching and relaxing each muscle group: legs, glutes, abdomen, back, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and face.
Demographic factors also impact risk for anxiety disorders. While there is not a strong consensus, research suggests that risk for anxiety disorders decreases over the lifespan with lower risk being demonstrated later in life. Women are significantly more likely to experience anxiety disorders. Another robust biological and sociodemographic risk factor for anxiety disorders is gender, as women are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety. Overall symptom severity has also been shown to be more severe in women compared to men, and women with anxiety disorders typically report a lower quality of life than men. This sex difference in the prevalence and severity of anxiety disorders that puts women at a disadvantage over men is not specific to anxiety disorders, but is also found in depression and other stress-related adverse health outcomes (i.e. obesity and cardiometabolic disease). Basic science and clinical studies suggest that ovarian hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, and their fluctuations may play an important role in this sex difference in anxiety disorder prevalence and severity. While changes in estrogen and progesterone, over the month as well as over the lifetime, are linked to change in anxiety symptom severity and have been shown to impact systems implicated in the etiology of anxiety disorders (i.e. the stress axis), it still remains unclear how these hormones and their fluctuations increase women's vulnerability to anxiety.
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Panic attacks, a hallmark of panic disorder, are sudden and repeated bouts of overwhelming fear. These attacks, which often begin in adolescence or early adulthood, are much more intense than normal feelings of anxiety or stress. They usually pass after a few minutes and typically last no longer than an hour, but can continue to recur throughout a day.
The degree of accompanying stress response and its physiological, psychological, and emotional changes are directly proportional to the degree of anxiety. For example, if you are only slightly concerned, such as being slightly nervous about meeting someone new, the body produces a small degree stress response. The small degree stress response can be so slight that you don’t even notice it.
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.
Anxiety during social interactions, particularly between strangers, is common among young people. It may persist into adulthood and become social anxiety or social phobia. "Stranger anxiety" in small children is not considered a phobia. In adults, an excessive fear of other people is not a developmentally common stage; it is called social anxiety. According to Cutting, social phobics do not fear the crowd but the fact that they may be judged negatively.
Almost everyone experiencing symptoms of a panic attack needs evaluation. Unless the person has a history of having panic attacks, is otherwise healthy, and is experiencing a typical attack, they must be evaluated promptly by a doctor. The level of evaluation depends on many factors. Err on the side of safety when deciding whether to go to a hospital's emergency department.
The buildup phase of a panic attack is the most important phase, because it is when you can prevent it. If you are under chronic stress, you become worn down and have no reserve left. Anything can push you over the edge. But if you regularly reduce your stress through a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and mind-body relaxation, you will have enough reserve left to handle life’s surprises.
Many who have never dealt with this ailment dismiss it as an excuse by those who suffer from it to get out of mundane tasks or work requirements. Much like ADHD or mood disorders, anxiety is not something that can necessarily be seen or proven when you are the sufferer struggling to explain yourself to someone who doubts that your night sweats and inability to turn your brain off in the wee hours of the morning are not something you are making up to take a vacation day. Our life is not a vacation.
While the term "test anxiety" refers specifically to students, many workers share the same experience with regard to their career or profession. The fear of failing at a task and being negatively evaluated for failure can have a similarly negative effect on the adult. Management of test anxiety focuses on achieving relaxation and developing mechanisms to manage anxiety.
You can learn more about this in the Recovery Support area of our website. Our support area contains a wealth of self-help information on how to treat anxiety disorder, including anxiety attacks. Many find it to be their “one stop” destination for anxiety disorder help. You can click here for more information about our Recovery Support area membership options.
Says Clyman: "You might start to consider your emotions as changing experiences that are always fluctuating. When we feel distressed, it can seem like the distress is going to go on and on forever until we emotionally combust. But instead, emotions act more like a wave, at times increasing and becoming more intense. But inevitably they'll reach a plateau, subsiding and finally passing."
Anxiety attacks that occur while sleeping, also called nocturnal panic attacks, occur less often than panic attacks during the daytime but affect about 40%-70% of those who suffer from daytime panic attacks. This symptom is also important because people who suffer from panic symptoms during sleep tend to have more respiratory distress associated with their panic. They also tend to experience more symptoms of depression and other psychiatric disorders compared to people who do not have panic attacks at night. Nocturnal panic attacks tend to cause sufferers to wake suddenly from sleep in a state of sudden fear or dread for no apparent reason. In contrast to people with sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, sufferers of nocturnal panic can have all the other symptoms of a panic attack. The duration of nocturnal panic attacks tends to be less than 10 minutes, but it can take much longer to fully calm down for those who experience them.
What is depression and what can I do about it? Depression is a mood disorder characterized by low mood, a feeling of sadness, and a general loss of interest in things. Depression is not a short-term problem and can last for months. There are many types of depression, and it is essential to see a doctor or mental health therapist for correct diagnosis and treatment. Read now
Genetics and family history (e.g., parental anxiety) may predispose an individual for an increased risk of an anxiety disorder, but generally external stimuli will trigger its onset or exacerbation. Genetic differences account for about 43% of variance in panic disorder and 28% in generalized anxiety disorder. Although single genes are neither necessary nor sufficient for anxiety by themselves, several gene polymorphisms have been found to correlate with anxiety: PLXNA2, SERT, CRH, COMT and BDNF. Several of these genes influence neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and norepinephrine) and hormones (such as cortisol) which are implicated in anxiety. The epigenetic signature of at least one of these genes BDNF has also been associated with anxiety and specific patterns of neural activity.
Anxiety is associated with abnormal patterns of activity in the brain. One way to treat anxiety is to directly target abnormal nerve cell activity. Neuromodulation or brain stimulation therapy is a non-invasive and painless therapy that stimulates the human brain. In some recent clinical trials, patients that did not respond to more traditional forms of treatment (i.e. medication) showed a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety. There are two main types of neuromodulation:
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.
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Try to adopt a more casual attitude. so when you feel your heart start beating faster, say something to yourself like: Oops! Something set off my stress response, can’t see anything dangerous here. I’ll just wait for a few minutes for my brain and body to realize I’m not in any danger”. This type of self-talk is much better than “There’s something wrong with my heart! I’m having a heart attack, I’m dying!!”
Antidepressants are used to treat depression, but they can also be helpful for treating anxiety disorders. They may help improve the way your brain uses certain chemicals that control mood or stress. You may need to try several different antidepressant medicines before finding the one that improves your symptoms and has manageable side effects. A medication that has helped you or a close family member in the past will often be considered.