Loved ones, as well as medical personnel, generally attempt to reassure the panic attack sufferer that he or she is not in great danger. However, these efforts at reassurance can sometimes add to the patient's struggles. If the doctors say things like, "it's nothing serious," "it's all in your head," or "nothing to worry about," this may give the false impression that there is no real problem, they should be able to overcome their symptoms without help, and that treatment is not possible or necessary. More accurately, while panic attacks can undoubtedly be serious, they are not organ-threatening. Therefore, for people who might wonder what to do to help the panic sufferer at the time of an anxiety attack, a more effective approach tends to be acknowledge their fear and the intensity of their symptoms while reassuring the person having the panic attack that what is occurring is not life-threatening and can be treated.
Many people experience their first panic attack due a build up of chronic stress. Anxious personalities often then become afraid of them, which further stresses the body. As fear and stress increase, so does the likelihood of a subsequent panic attack. This scenario is a common catalyst into Panic Attack Disorder: becoming afraid of the feelings and symptoms of a panic attack, which causes further panic attacks.
Heredity, other biological factors, stressful life events, and thinking in a way that exaggerates relatively normal bodily reactions are all believed to play a role in the onset of panic disorder. Some research suggests panic attacks occur when a “suffocation alarm mechanism” in the brain is activated, falsely reporting that death is imminent. The exact cause or causes of panic disorder are unknown and are the subject of intense scientific investigation.
Anxiety can be either a short-term "state" or a long-term "trait". Whereas trait anxiety represents worrying about future events, anxiety disorders are a group of mental disorders characterized by feelings of anxiety and fear. Anxiety disorders are partly genetic but may also be due to drug use, including alcohol, caffeine, and benzodiazepines (which are often prescribed to treat anxiety), as well as withdrawal from drugs of abuse. They often occur with other mental disorders, particularly bipolar disorder, eating disorders, major depressive disorder, or certain personality disorders. Common treatment options include lifestyle changes, medication, and therapy. Metacognitive therapy seeks to diminish anxiety through reducing worry, which is seen[by whom?] as a consequence of metacognitive beliefs.
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.
Additionally, there is some evidence that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction treatment (MBSR), as well as online and computerized treatments are effective in treating panic disorder (Arch et al., 2017). However, the overwhelming majority of research supports the long-term success of CBT for treating panic disorder. More research is needed to explore the extent to which MBSR and ACT work when compared to CBT and other treatments, but preliminary results are positive. In general, empirically-supported treatments that are founded on the basis of research within the psychological and medical fields are recommended for treating panic disorder.
Although each anxiety disorder has unique characteristics, most respond well to two types of treatment: psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” and medications. These treatments can be given alone or in combination. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy, can help a person learn a different way of thinking, reacting and behaving to help feel less anxious. Medications will not cure anxiety disorders, but can give significant relief from symptoms. The most commonly used medications are anti-anxiety medications (generally prescribed only for a short period of time) and antidepressants. Beta-blockers, used for heart conditions, are sometimes used to control physical symptoms of anxiety.
If you’ve been experiencing panic attacks or think you may have panic disorder, we encourage you to seek diagnosis and treatment from your doctor and a mental health professional. Although panic attacks can feel like a debilitating and embarrassing condition, it is important to remember that you aren’t alone and your mental health is nothing to be embarrassed about. There are a variety of resources available to you for advice and support, both online and in the form of support groups. For more information, ask your healthcare provider about what is available in your area and check out the links below:
The psychotherapy component of treatment for panic disorder is at least as important as medication. In fact, research shows that psychotherapy alone or the combination of medication and psychotherapy treatment are more effective than medication alone in the long-term management of panic attacks. In overcoming anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy is widely accepted as an effective form of psychotherapy treatment, for both adults and children. This form of psychotherapy seeks to help those with panic disorder identify and decrease the irrational thoughts and behaviors that reinforce panic symptoms and can be done either individually, in group therapy, in partner-assisted therapy, and even over the Internet. Behavioral techniques that are often used to decrease anxiety include relaxation techniques (like breathing techniques or guided imagery) and gradually increasing exposure to situations that may have previously triggered anxiety in the panic disorder sufferer. Helping the person with anxiety understand how to handle the emotional forces that may have contributed to developing symptoms (panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy) has also been found to be effective in teaching an individual with panic disorder how to prevent an anxiety attack or how to calm down in order to decrease or stop a panic attack once it starts.
Exercise regularly. Exercise is a natural stress buster and anxiety reliever. To achieve the maximum benefit, aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days (broken up into short periods if that’s easier). Rhythmic activities that require moving both your arms and legs are especially effective. Try walking, running, swimming, martial arts, or dancing.
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.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
Panic attacks may also be caused by substances. Discontinuation or marked reduction in the dose of a substance such as a drug (drug withdrawal), for example an antidepressant (antidepressant discontinuation syndrome), can cause a panic attack. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, "the most commonly reported side effects of smoking marijuana are anxiety and panic attacks. Studies report that about 20% to 30% of recreational users experience such problems after smoking marijuana."
Another important prevention strategy for anxiety is to incorporate exercise into your daily activities. Exercise has been shown to decrease stress hormones that influence anxiety and also improve overall mood. Exercise can also help you disengage from worry and stress and focus on the current task of exercising. Exercises such as light jogging or brisk walking that can be incorporated into your daily activities can help reduce the impact of anxiety when it occurs.
Anyone can learn how to stop and prevent anxiety attacks. It’s a matter of learning more about them and knowing how to control and prevent them. Most people struggle with problematic anxiety attacks because they don’t understand them, and therefore, fear them…which is a common catalyst into Panic Attack Disorder. The more you know, the better off you’ll be.
If you have anxiety that’s severe enough to interfere with your ability to function, medication may help relieve some anxiety symptoms. However, anxiety medications can be habit forming and cause unwanted or even dangerous side effects, so be sure to research your options carefully. Many people use anti-anxiety medication when therapy, exercise, or self-help strategies would work just as well or better—minus the side effects and safety concerns. It’s important to weigh the benefits and risks of anxiety medication so you can make an informed decision.
Benzodiazepines are often used to provide short-term relief of panic symptoms. Clonazepam (Klonopin) and lorazepam (Ativan) are examples of this group of medications. Although another benzodiazepine, alprazolam (Xanax), is often used to treat panic attacks, the short period of time that it works can cause the panic sufferer to have to take it multiple times each day. Benzodiazepines tend to be effective in decreasing panic attacks by up to 70%-75% almost immediately; however, this class of medications has a strong addiction potential and should be used with caution. Additional drawbacks include sedation, memory loss, and after several weeks, tolerance to their effects and withdrawal symptoms may occur.
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.
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.