Exposure therapy has been around for a long time. It involves exposing the patient in a safe and controlled environment to physical sensations they experience during a panic attack much the same way you‘d expose in small increments a person with a fear of trains or puppies or snakes to the things that scares them. With panic disorder, there’s often a heightened sensitivity to ordinary physical sensations such as racing heart, stomach ache or feeling faint. In exposure therapy, the therapist will ask you to mimic activities—like running around or doing jumping jacks or holding your breath—to cause panic symptoms. The idea is that by repeating the things that may trigger a panic attack those triggers will eventually lose their power.
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.
Once someone has had a panic attack, he or she may develop irrational fears, called phobias, about the situations they are in during the attacks and begin to avoid them. That, in turn, may reach the point where the mere idea of doing things that preceded the first panic attack triggers terror or dread of future panic attacks, resulting in the individual with panic disorder being unable to drive or even step out of the house. If this occurs, the person is considered to have panic disorder with agoraphobia.
The feared object/situation is avoided or endured with intense anxiety or distress. The avoidance, anticipation of, or distress of the phobic object/situation must cause significant distress or interferes with the individual's daily life, occupational, academic, or social functioning to meet diagnosis. The symptoms cannot be better accounted for by another mental disorder or be caused by substances, medications, or medical illness.
Panic attacks are extremely unpleasant and can be very frightening. As a result, people who experience repeated panic attacks often become very worried about having another attack and may make changes to their lifestyle so as to avoid having panic attacks. For example, avoiding exercise so as to keep their heart rate low, or avoiding certain places.
Anxiety can be experienced with long, drawn out daily symptoms that reduce quality of life, known as chronic (or generalized) anxiety, or it can be experienced in short spurts with sporadic, stressful panic attacks, known as acute anxiety. Symptoms of anxiety can range in number, intensity, and frequency, depending on the person. While almost everyone has experienced anxiety at some point in their lives, most do not develop long-term problems with anxiety.
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.
"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.
A number of medical conditions can cause anxiety symptoms. These include an overactive thyroid, hypoglycemia, mitral valve prolapse, anemia, asthma, COPD, inflammatory bowel disease, Parkinson's disease, and dementia among others. Your physician may perform certain tests to rule out these conditions. But it is important to remember that anxiety is more often due to poor coping skills or substance abuse than any medical condition.
Fortunately, panic disorder is a treatable condition. Psychotherapy and medications have both been used, either singly or in combination, for successful treatment of panic disorder. If medication is necessary, your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications, certain antidepressants or sometimes certain anticonvulsant drugs that also have anti-anxiety properties, or a class of heart medications known as beta-blockers to help prevent or control the episodes in panic disorder.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an example of one type of psychotherapy that can help people with anxiety disorders. It teaches people different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to anxiety-producing and fearful objects and situations. CBT can also help people learn and practice social skills, which is vital for treating social anxiety disorder.