Have you ever experienced an intense feeling of terror, fear or apprehension, for no apparent reason? If you have, you may have experienced a panic attack. If you experience recurrent panic attacks, you may have a condition called panic disorder. Panic attacks can also be the sign of other underlying medical or mental health conditions, including sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or depression.
Researchers have conducted both animal and human studies to pinpoint the particular parts of the brain that are involved in anxiety and fear. Because fear evolved to deal with danger, it sets off an immediate protective response without conscious thought. This fear response is believed to be coordinated by the amygdala, a structure deep inside the brain. Although relatively small, the amygdala is quite complex, and recent studies suggest that anxiety disorders may be associated with abnormal activity within it.
There are also things that people with panic disorder can do to learn how to handle it and to make treatment more effective. Since substances like drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages, or using illicit drugs can worsen panic attacks, those things should be avoided. Other tips to prevent or manage panic attacks include engaging in aerobic exercise and stress-management techniques like deep breathing, massage therapy, and yoga, since these self-help activities have also been found to help decrease the frequency and severity of panic attacks. Although many people use home remedies like breathing into a paper bag when afflicted by the hyperventilation that can be associated with panic, the benefit received may be the result of the individual believing it will remedy the symptoms (placebo effect). Also, breathing into a paper bag when one is already having trouble breathing can make matters worse when the hyperventilation is the result of conditions of oxygen deprivation, like an asthma attack or a heart attack.
A key component to the prevention of anxiety is awareness. Learning to recognize your anxious thinking patterns when they arise can help you manage and reduce them quickly. Awareness of anxiety begins with trying to identify the cause and/or trigger of anxiety and gaining an understanding of how it affects your mood and behaviors. Is it that your boss recently gave you negative feedback at work and you are worried each day that you are not doing well enough for their standards? Is it that you waited until the last minute to study for a test and are feeling anxious that you will not perform well? Awareness of the source of your anxiety is the first step to finding out the best way to relieve it.
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.
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.
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.
David D. Burns recommends breathing exercises for those suffering from anxiety. One such breathing exercise is a 5-2-5 count. Using the stomach (or diaphragm)—and not the chest—inhale (feel the stomach come out, as opposed to the chest expanding) for 5 seconds. As the maximal point at inhalation is reached, hold the breath for 2 seconds. Then slowly exhale, over 5 seconds. Repeat this cycle twice and then breathe 'normally' for 5 cycles (1 cycle = 1 inhale + 1 exhale). The point is to focus on the breathing and relax the heart rate. Regular diaphragmatic breathing may be achieved by extending the outbreath by counting or humming.
But flashbacks may occur with other types of anxiety as well. Some research, including a 2006 study in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, suggests that some people with social anxiety have PTSD-like flashbacks of experiences that might not seem obviously traumatic, such as being publicly ridiculed. These people may even avoid reminders of the experience—another symptom reminiscent of PTSD.
Prolonged exposure therapy is a specific type of CBT used to treat PTSD and phobias. The goal of this therapy is to help patients overcome the overwhelming disstress they experience when reminded of past traumas or in confronting their fears. With the guidance of a licensed therapist, the patient is carefully reintroduced to the trauma memories or reminders. During the exposure, the therapist guides the patient to use coping techniques such as mindfulness or relaxation therapy/imagery. The goal of this therapy is to help patients realize that trauma-related memories (or phobias) are no longer dangerous and do not need to be avoided. This type of treatment usually lasts 8-16 weekly sessions.
It is important to note that genetic factors can also bestow resilience to anxiety disorders, and the field continues to pursue large-scale genomics studies to identify novel genetic factors that are associated with anxiety disorders in hopes of better understanding biological pathways that: 1) contribute to the development and maintenance of anxiety; and 2) may lead to better treatment for these disorders. Most people are not aware of what specific genetic markers they may have that confer risk for anxiety disorders, so a straightforward way to approximate genetic risk is if an individual has a history of anxiety disorders in their family. While both nature and nurture can be at play with family history, if several people have anxiety disorders it is likely that a genetic vulnerability to anxiety exists in that family.
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.
Nevertheless, if you are struggling with symptoms of an anxiety disorder it is not uncommon to feel alone and misunderstood. Because the fear that people with an anxiety disorder have is not experienced by others, they may not understand why, for example, being in a crowd of people, not being able to wash your hands after meeting a new person, or driving through the street where you got in a car accident can be really anxiety-provoking for someone with an anxiety disorder. People may comment that "there is no reason to worry about it" or that you "should just let it go".
Panic attacks can happen during the day or night. Some people have one panic attack then don't ever experience another, or you might find that you have them regularly, or several in a short space of time. You might notice that particular places, situations or activities seem to trigger panic attacks. For example, they might happen before a stressful appointment.
The typical course of panic disorder begins in adolescence and peaks in early to mid-twenties, with symptoms rarely present in children under the age of 14 or in older adults over the age of 64 (Kessler et al., 2012). Caregivers can look for symptoms of panic attacks in adolescents, followed by notable changes in their behavior (e.g., avoiding experiencing strong physical sensations), to help potentially identify the onset of panic disorder. Panic disorder is most likely to develop between the ages of 20-24 years and although females are more likely to have panic disorder, there are no significant sex differences in how the disorder presents (McLean et al., 2011).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is considered to be the gold standard of treatment, especially for panic disorder. CBT focuses on educating clients about their disorders, identifying and changing maladaptive thoughts and fears, learning relaxation and other coping strategies, and helping clients face their fears. Research has shown that CBT for panic disorder is also effective when there are other comorbid disorders present as well and that the key component that makes CBT effective is the exposure ("facing your fears") module (Hofmann, 2011).
Cognitive distortions such as overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, mind reading, emotional reasoning, binocular trick, and mental filter can result in anxiety. For example, an overgeneralized belief that something bad "always" happens may lead someone to have excessive fears of even minimally risky situations and to avoid benign social situations due to anticipatory anxiety of embarrassment. In addition, those who have high anxiety can also create future stressful life events. Together, these findings suggest that anxious thoughts can lead to anticipatory anxiety as well stressful events, which in turn cause more anxiety. Such unhealthy thoughts can be targets for successful treatment with cognitive therapy.
I just had my first big anxiety attack yesterday. It happened probably because of some friend drama and school responsibilities and how the world is completely crumbling down and I can’t do anything about it. I started sobbing uncontrollably, I was hyperventilating so oxygen couldn’t get to my hands so they started going numb I was alone for about 30 minutes until I had the strength to call my mom. I think what triggered it most was the drama which sounds kinda selfish. My friend always talks about herself and this guy she likes, I also messed up on this project and she told me off and looked disappointed, like I was stupid or something. We are best friends i know it’s just a phase but it’s hurting me.
Genetic risk factors have been documented for all anxiety disorders. Clinical genetic studies indicate that heritability estimates for anxiety disorders range from 30-67%. Many studies, past and present, have focused on identifying specific genetic factors that increase one's risk for an anxiety disorder. To date, an array of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) or small variations in genetic code, that confer heightened risk for anxiety have been discovered. For the most part, the variants that have been associated with risk for anxiety are located within genes that are critical for the expression and regulation of neurotransmitter systems or stress hormones.
Generally, anxiety arises first, often during childhood. Evidence suggests that both biology and environment can contribute to the disorder. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety; however, even so, development of the condition is not inevitable. Early traumatic experiences can also reset the body’s normal fear-processing system so that it is hyper-reactive.
Depression is a condition in which a person feels discouraged, sad, hopeless, unmotivated, or disinterested in life in general for more than two weeks and when the feelings interfere with daily activities. Major depression is a treatable illness that affects the way a person thinks, feels, behaves, and functions. At any point in time, 3 to 5 percent of people suffer from major depression; the lifetime risk is about 17 percent.