Your heart beats fast, and your breathing speeds up. Your chest may feel tight, and you might start to sweat. If you've ever felt it, you know that anxiety is just as much a physical state as a mental state. That's because there's a very strong biological chain reaction that occurs when we encounter a stressful event or begin to worry about potential stressors or dangers in the future. Other physical symptoms include sweating, headaches, and insomnia. Psychological symptoms may include feeling restless or irritable, feeling tense, having a feeling of dread, or experiencing ruminative or obsessive thoughts.
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.
People with panic disorder have sudden and repeated attacks of fear that last for several minutes or longer. These are called panic attacks. Panic attacks are characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. A person may also have a strong physical reaction during a panic attack. It may feel like having a heart attack. Panic attacks can occur at any time, and many people with panic disorder worry about and dread the possibility of having another attack.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors, not external things, like people, situations, and events. According to the National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists the benefit of this therapy is that we can change the way we think to feel and act better even if the situation does not change. CBT focuses on determining the thought and behavior patterns responsible for sustaining or causing the panic attacks. CBT is a time-limited process (treatment goals—and the number of sessions expected to achieve them—are established at the start) that employs a variety of cognitive and behavioral techniques to affect change.
As with most behavioral illnesses, the causes of panic attacks are many. Certainly there is evidence that the tendency to have panic attacks can sometimes be inherited. However, there is also evidence that panic may be a learned response and that the attacks can be initiated in otherwise healthy people simply given the right set of circumstances. Research into the causes of panic attacks is ongoing.
Anxiety attack disorder generally starts with one unexplained attack that can include a number of intense anxiety attack symptoms, which causes the individual to become concerned. As other attacks occur, fear of having anxiety attacks, what they mean, what the associated symptoms mean, and where the attacks and symptoms may lead, increases. This escalation of fear is often the catalyst that brings on the attacks, causing the individual to be seemingly caught in a cycle of fear then panic, then more fear, then more panic, and so on.
"Anxiety" is a general term that describes a variety of experiences, including nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worry, that are common in several mental health disorders. While most of us have anxiety at some time, this is completely different from an anxiety attack or anxiety disorder. Normal feelings of nervousness, worry, and fear often have a known trigger (a major exam, money issues, or seeing a bug). But when you're having a full blown panic attack or anxiety attack, the symptoms — chest pain, flushing skin, racing heart, and difficulty breathing — can make you feel as though you're going to faint, lose your mind, or die. The reality is, you won’t. The key to surviving is to learn all you can about anxiety attacks and practice the skills you need to get through them.
In order to manage threatening situations, humans have evolved to experience a "fight or flight" response. As part of this response, when humans are confronted with a dangerous situation, their body mobilizes by sending blood away from their extremities (e.g. hands and feet) and into the major muscles, producing adrenaline, and increasing heart rate so that we are better equipped to fight off danger.
Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on the thinking patterns and behaviors that are sustaining or triggering your panic attacks and helps you look at your fears in a more realistic light. For example, if you had a panic attack while driving, what is the worst thing that would really happen? While you might have to pull over to the side of the road, you are not likely to crash your car or have a heart attack. Once you learn that nothing truly disastrous is going to happen, the experience of panic becomes less terrifying.
Although many people breathe into a paper bag in an attempt to alleviate the hyperventilation that can be associated with panic, the benefit received may be the result of the individual thinking it will help (a placebo effect). Unfortunately, breathing into a paper bag while having trouble breathing can worsen symptoms when the hyperventilation is caused by a condition associated with oxygen deprivation, like an asthma attack or a heart attack.
In particular, the doctor will be concerned with the person's past medical history, past history of any mental illness, and any surgery the person may have had. In addition to exploring whether the person suffers from any other mental illness, the practitioner often explores whether the panic attack sufferer has a specific anxiety disorder in addition to or instead of panic disorder, like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder.
Once an individual has had a panic attack, for example, while driving, shopping in a crowded store, or riding in an elevator, he or she may develop irrational fears, called phobias, about these situations and begin to avoid them. Eventually, the avoidance and level of nervousness about the possibility of having another attack may reach the point at which the mere idea of engaging in the activities that preceded the first panic attack triggers future panic attacks, resulting in the person with panic disorder potentially being unable to drive or even step out of the house (agoraphobia). Thus, there are two types of panic disorder, panic disorder with or without agoraphobia. Like other mental health conditions, panic disorder can have a serious impact on a person's daily life unless the individual receives effective treatment.
For example, once you notice you are scaring yourself with anxious thinking, you can change your thinking to calming thoughts, which will stop stress responses and their physiological, psychological, and emotional effects. As you calm yourself down, your body will follow by stopping the flow of stress hormones. As stress hormones are used up or expelled, the sensations, symptoms, and feelings of panic will subside…in time.
If you have Panic Disorder, the chances are very high that you have altered your life in some significant way in an effort to prevent or avoid additional panic attacks. It is common, for instance, for people to limit their travel; to restrict their driving (maybe staying within a certain radius from home, or avoiding highways); to avoid large, crowded shopping malls; and in general, to attempt to avoid any activity from which "escape" may be difficult.
Treatment of anxiety focuses on a two-pronged approach for most people, that focuses on using psychotherapy combined with occasional use of anti-anxiety medications on an as-needed basis. Most types of anxiety can be successfully treated with psychotherapy alone — cognitive-behavioral and behavioral techniques have been shown to be very effective. Anti-anxiety medications tend to be fast-acting and have a short-life, meaning they leave a person’s system fairly quickly (compared to other psychiatric medications, which can take weeks or even months to completely leave).
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Says Clyman: "You might start to consider your emotions as changing experiences that are always fluctuating. When we feel distressed, it can seem like the distress is going to go on and on forever until we emotionally combust. But instead, emotions act more like a wave, at times increasing and becoming more intense. But inevitably they'll reach a plateau, subsiding and finally passing."
Some types of drugs may work better for specific types of anxiety disorders, so people should work closely with their doctor to identify which medication is best for them. Certain substances such as caffeine, some over-the-counter cold medicines, illicit drugs, and herbal supplements may aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders or interact with prescribed medication. Patients should talk with their doctor, so they can learn which substances are safe and which to avoid.