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.
If left untreated, anxiety may worsen to the point at which the person's life is seriously affected by panic attacks and by attempts to avoid or conceal them. In fact, many people have had problems with friends and family, failed in school, and/or lost jobs while struggling to cope with this condition. There may be periods of spontaneous improvement in the episodes, but panic attacks do not usually go away unless the person receives treatments designed specifically to help people with these symptoms.
It is 3:00 in the morning. I wake up from a dead sleep, sit straight up, and immediately know something is wrong. I am sweating, nauseous, and feel as if someone has dumped a bucket of ice water onto my chest. I feel it spill down my abdomen and through my arms and legs. My chest feels as though a giant’s hand is squeezing it with the intention of taking my life.
As is true for other mood and anxiety disorders, the use of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI's; e.g.., Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft), Benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Lorazepam), and Selective Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRI's; e.g., Cymbalta, Effexor, Pristiq) are common medical treatments for panic disorder. Additionally, D-cycloserine is a medication that is now being explored as a way to enhance effects of CBT (e.g., Hofmann et al., 2013). These medications may have side effects and taking them can lead to tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and dependence, so it is important that you consult with a physician before starting or stopping these medications. There is evidence that taking one of these medications in addition to receiving behavioral therapy (e.g., CBT) can significantly benefit patients with panic disorder, although seeking psychotherapy in itself is largely effective (Arch et al., 2017).
Since panic attacks are caused by overly apprehensive behavior or chronic stress, addressing our overly apprehensive behavior and stress can stop and prevent panic attacks, and eventually, panic disorder. The combination of good self-help information and therapy is the most effective way of addressing overly apprehensive behavior. Accessing good self-help information and applying it is a good way to reduce stress.
Behaving in an apprehensive manner produces the physiological, psychological, and emotional state of anxiety. When we behave apprehensively (worried, fretful, concerned, afraid), the body activates the stress response, which secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots in the body to bring about specific changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with danger. The stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response because of how it equips the body to either fight with or flee from danger.
Although beta-blockers are most often used to treat high blood pressure, they can also be used to help relieve the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat, shaking, trembling, and blushing. These medications, when taken for a short period of time, can help people keep physical symptoms under control. They can also be used “as needed” to reduce acute anxiety, including as a preventive intervention for some predictable forms of performance anxieties.
Panic Disorder: People with panic disorder have panic attacks with feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. During the attacks, individuals may feel like they can't breathe, have lost control, are having a heart attack or even that they are dying. Physical symptoms may include chest pain, dizziness, nausea, sweating, tingling or numbness, and a racing heartbeat. Some people will have one isolated attack, while others will develop a long term panic disorder; either way, there is often high anxiety between attacks because there is no way of knowing when the next one will occur. Panic disorders often begin early in adulthood. Many people with panic disorder also suffer from agoraphobia (abnormal fear of open or public places.). See more on Panic Attacks.
Biological causes may include obsessive compulsive disorder, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, post traumatic stress disorder, hypoglycemia, hyperthyroidism, Wilson's disease, mitral valve prolapse, pheochromocytoma, and inner ear disturbances (labyrinthitis). Dysregulation of the norepinephrine system in the locus ceruleus, an area of the brain stem, has been linked to panic attacks.
A helpful approach to distinguishing normal anxiety from an anxiety disorder is to identify the cause of the anxiety, and then assess whether the anxiety symptoms are a proportional response to it. Worries, fears, and intrusive thoughts that are extreme, unrealistic, or exaggerated and interfere with normal life and functioning could constitute an anxiety disorder. For instance, being concerned about getting sick and taking steps to avoid germs, like using hand sanitizer and avoiding touching door handles, does not necessarily constitute an anxiety disorder; however, if the concern about sickness makes it difficult to leave the house, then it is possible that the person suffers from an anxiety or anxiety-related disorder.
What happens, exactly? "We all physically respond to stress," says Barbara O. Rothbaum, PhD, psychiatry professor and director, Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program, at Atlanta's Emory University School of Medicine. "You might feel anxious about work-related problems, taking a big exam, or making an important decision. But someone who suffers from panic disorder may react to those same moderate pressures with an exaggerated physical reaction-as if he or she were about to be attacked by a wild tiger or fall from a great height. It's full-on, adrenaline-pumping, fight-or-flight response."
Women are more than two times as likely as men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. (6) It’s not clear why this is the case, but researchers have theorized that it may be due to a combination of social and biological factors. Scientists are still investigating the complex role that sex plays in brain chemistry, but some research suggests that in women, the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for processing potential threats, may be more sensitive to negative stimuli and may hold on to the memory of it longer. (7)
Selective mutism: A somewhat rare disorder associated with anxiety is selective mutism. Selective mutism occurs when people fail to speak in specific social situations despite having normal language skills. Selective mutism usually occurs before the age of 5 and is often associated with extreme shyness, fear of social embarrassment, compulsive traits, withdrawal, clinging behavior, and temper tantrums. People diagnosed with selective mutism are often also diagnosed with other anxiety disorders.