A person with panic disorder experiences sudden and repeated panic attacks—episodes of intense fear and discomfort that reach a peak within a few minutes—during which time the individual experiences physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, breathlessness, vertigo, or abdominal distress, sometimes accompanied by the fear of dying or of going insane. These symptoms may seem similar to those of a heart attack or other life-threatening medical conditions. Panic disorder is often diagnosed after medical tests or emergency room visits have ruled out other serious illnesses.
Please note that it is not a good idea to attempt to diagnose or label a friend or family member. Only a mental health professional can diagnose an anxiety disorder, as many disorders have overlapping features, and can go together with other types of mental health difficulties. However, if you notice signs of anxiety, or just feel that something is not quite right with someone that you care about, it's a good idea to reach out to ask the person how they are feeling. You could start with something neutral and supportive like, "It seems like you haven't been quite yourself lately. Is there something going on that you want to talk about?"
While everyone experiences brief episodes of intense anxiety from time to time, and a great many people experience one or two anxiety attacks over the course of their lifetime, anxiety attack disorder occurs when these attacks become frequent or persistent, begin interfering with or restricting normal lifestyle, or when the individual becomes afraid of them. Once established, anxiety attack disorder can be very debilitating.
Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders are characterized by obsessive, intrusive thoughts (e.g. constantly worrying about staying clean, or about one's body size) that trigger related, compulsive behaviors (e.g. repeated hand-washing, or excessive exercise). These behaviors are performed to alleviate the anxiety associated with the obsessive thoughts. These types of disorders can restrict participation in everyday life and/or generate significant distress, for instance, by making it difficult to leave the house without many repetitions of a compulsive behavior (e.g. checking that the doors are locked). Periodically experiencing worry or having a few "idiosyncratic" habits does not constitute an obsessive-compulsive or related disorder. Instead, these disorders are characterized by unusually high levels of worry and related compulsive behaviors, in comparison with a typical range of individuals.
Some people have only one or two attacks and are never bothered again. Panic attacks can occur with other psychiatric disorders. In panic disorders, however, the panic attacks return repeatedly and the person develops an intense fear of having another attack. Without help, this "fear of fear" can make people avoid certain situations and can interfere with their lives even when they are not having a panic attack. Therefore, it is very important to recognize the problem and get help.
More than shyness, this disorder causes intense fear about social interaction, often driven by irrational worries about humiliation (e.g. saying something stupid or not knowing what to say). Someone with social anxiety disorder may not take part in conversations, contribute to class discussions or offer their ideas, and may become isolated. Panic attacks are a common reaction to anticipated or forced social interaction.
The problem with catastrophizing is that it is rigid thinking. Suppose you worry that you’re having a heart attack every time you experience some chest pain. It’s usually easy for a health professional to distinguish between anxiety and a heart attack. But catastrophizing resists new information. Even though, your doctor has done tests in the past and has reassured you many times, you worry that this time will be different. Your exaggerated fear is preventing you from changing your thinking, and is keeping you stuck.
In deeper level psychoanalytic approaches, in particular object relations theory, panic attacks are frequently associated with splitting (psychology), paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, and paranoid anxiety. They are often found comorbid with borderline personality disorder and child sexual abuse. Paranoid anxiety may reach the level of a persecutory anxiety state.
Because there are many medical conditions that can cause anxiety attack signs and symptoms, such as the strong sensations and feelings associated with anxiety attacks, it’s wise to discuss them with your doctor. If your doctor has attributed your anxiety attacks to stress and anxiety, you can feel confident that your doctor’s diagnosis is correct. Anxiety attacks and their signs and symptoms are relatively easy to diagnose and aren’t easily confused with other medical conditions.
About 2-3% of Americans experience panic disorder in a given year and it is twice as common in women than in men. Panic disorder can interfere a lot with daily life, causing people to miss work, go to many doctor visits, and avoid situations where they fear they might experience a panic attack. The interference is greatest when people also have agoraphobia, as well as panic disorder.
In the past it might have taken months or years and lots of frustration before getting a proper diagnosis. Some people are afraid or embarrassed to tell anyone, including their doctors or loved ones about what they are experiencing for fear of being seen as a hypochondriac. Instead they suffer in silence, distancing themselves from friends, family, and others who could be helpful. Other people suffering from panic attacks don't know they have a real and highly treatable disorder. It is our hope that through increased education, people will feel more empowered to discuss their symptoms with a healthcare professional and seek appropriate treatment.
Medications — most often antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs — can also be used to help treat panic disorder. Your doctor may initially prescribe you an anti-anxiety drug, such as Xanax (alprazolam), and then add an antidepressant, such as Effexor XR (venlafaxine). After a month or sooner, your doctor may stop the Xanax and have you remain on the antidepressant.
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.
^ Anxiety: management of anxiety (panic disorder, with or without agoraphobia, and generalised anxiety disorder) in adults in primary, secondary and community care. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Clinical Guideline 22. Issue date: April 2007 "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 August 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-21. ISBN 1-84629-400-2
Paula had her next panic attack three weeks later, and since then, they’ve been occurring with increasing frequency. She never knows when or where she’ll suffer an attack, but she’s afraid of having one in public. Consequently, she’s been staying home after work, rather than going out with friends. She also refuses to ride the elevator up to her 12th floor office out of fear of being trapped if she has a panic attack.
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.
Some research suggests that your body's natural fight-or-flight response to danger is involved in panic attacks. For example, if a grizzly bear came after you, your body would react instinctively. Your heart rate and breathing would speed up as your body prepared for a life-threatening situation. Many of the same reactions occur in a panic attack. But it's unknown why a panic attack occurs when there's no obvious danger present.
Although phobias can be crippling, they're not obvious at all times. In fact, they may not surface until you confront a specific situation and discover you're incapable of overcoming your fear. "A person who's afraid of snakes can go for years without having a problem," Winston says. "But then suddenly their kid wants to go camping, and they realize they need treatment."
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.
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.