You do not need to be officially diagnosed with panic disorder to have an attack. Some people have only one or two panic attacks in their life and don't have panic disorder. Panic attacks are actually much more common than panic disorder. According to one Harvard Medical School survey, about 23 percent of people interviewed experienced at least one panic attack in their lifetime, while only about 3 percent of people experienced panic disorder in their lifetime. (1)
Anxiety disorders respond very well to therapy—and often in a relatively short amount of time. The specific treatment approach depends on the type of anxiety disorder and its severity. But in general, most anxiety disorders are treated with therapy, medication, or some combination of the two. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure therapy are types of behavioral therapy, meaning they focus on behavior rather than on underlying psychological conflicts or issues from the past. They can help with issues such as panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and phobias.
In addition to the emotional turmoil and the physical manifestations that Caroline and Kirstie describe panic attacks can cause palpitations, pounding heart or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath or smothering; feelings of choking; chest pain or discomfort; nausea or abdominal distress; feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed or faint; chills or overheating; numbness or tingling; feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization); fear of losing control or “going crazy”; and fear of dying.
Anxiety is typified by exaggerated worries and expectations of negative outcomes in unknown situations, and such concerns are often accompanied by physical symptoms. These include muscle tension, headaches, stomach cramps, and frequent urination. Behavioral therapies, with or without medication to control symptoms, have proved highly effective against anxiety, especially in children.
"The fight-or-flight system is hardwired for us humans to manage dangerous situations, and those of us with anxiety have an activated fight-or-flight response when the trigger is not really dangerous," says Beth Salcedo, MD, the medical director of The Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders and board president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Pick an object that you can see somewhere in front of you and note everything you notice about that object—from its color and size to any patterns it may have, where you might have seen others like it, or what something completely opposite to the object would look like. You can do this in your head or speak your observational aloud to yourself or a friend.
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.
Paula had her first panic attack six months ago. She was in her office preparing for an important work presentation when, suddenly, she felt an intense wave of fear. Then the room started spinning and she felt like she was going to throw up. Her whole body was shaking, she couldn’t catch her breath, and her heart was pounding out of her chest. She gripped her desk until the episode passed, but it left her deeply shaken.
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.
Panic attack symptoms and heart attack symptoms can seem similar because their signs and symptoms can be similar. Most medical professionals, however, can quickly tell the difference between their symptoms as heart attacks have distinct symptoms that aren’t panic attack like. If you are unsure of which is panic attack symptoms and which is heart attack symptoms, seek immediate medical advice. If the doctor believes your symptoms are those of a panic attack, you can feel confident his or her diagnosis is correct. Therefore, there is no need to worry about a heart attack.
I have occasional panic attacks, typically around one or two of what I consider minor panic attacks per month. A minor panic attack is one that I catch and manage to head off before it grows full-blown. I just have so much experience having and handling panic attacks that I’ve learned the curb them…usually. Sometimes, my coping mechanisms don’t work and I’m left suffering a full-blown panic attack and, of course, they’re terrible. I’m always on the lookout for new and better coping mechanisms to minimize the chances of one slipping through like that.
Mindfulness involves spending time focusing on the present moment and using a nonjudgmental stance (things are not good or bad, they just are). This may sound straightforward but it can be tricky as our mind often wanders. Try to spend some time each day focusing on a single activity for 10 minutes. For example, focus on the experience of breathing: noticing the physical sensations that you have, the sound of your breath, the feeling of your chest rising and falling as you breathe, the feeling of air entering and leaving your lungs, etc. Try your best to keep your mind focused on these sensations. If you notice your mind wandering, gently redirect it back to the exercise. Engaging in these exercises on a regular basis can help you to feel emotionally centered. Check out websites, apps, and books for more information on mindfulness and guided mindfulness exercises.
There is evidence for panic disorder-like diagnoses across cultures, such as ataque de nervios in Latin American communities. Research has shown that African Americans experience more functional impairment (i.e., impact on one's ability to complete daily activities) than non-Latino white Americans. This is not an exhaustive list of cultural factors related to panic disorder, but it does highlight cultural differences that may affect the presentation of panic disorder as well as individual differences in the interpretation of panic symptoms (Asnaani, Gutner, Hinton, & Hofmann, 2009; Hofmann & Hinton, 2014; Lewis-Fernández, et al., 2010).
Many people don't know that their disorder is real and highly responsive to treatment. Some are afraid or embarrassed to tell anyone, including their doctors and loved ones, about what they experience for fear of being considered a hypochondriac. Instead they suffer in silence, distancing themselves from friends, family, and others who could be helpful or supportive.
People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) display excessive anxiety or worry, most days for at least 6 months, about a number of things such as personal health, work, social interactions, and everyday routine life circumstances. The fear and anxiety can cause significant problems in areas of their life, such as social interactions, school, and work.