Almost everyone has something they fear – maybe it's spiders, enclosed spaces, or heights. When we encounter these "threats," our hearts might begin to race, or our hands may become sweaty. Many fear-related disorders are treated using exposure therapy. This helps people "unlearn" a threat fear response by breaking the association between the "trigger." Imagination allows patients to immerse themselves with a triggering stimulus in a controlled way, at their own pace, which is why it could be a promising new form of treatment.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the U.S., affecting more than 18% of the population. They are even more common among children, affecting an estimated 25% of children between the ages of 13 and 18. The most common anxiety disorders are Specific Phobias, affecting 8.7% of the population, and Social Anxiety, affecting 6.8% of the population.
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.
Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to help with treating panic disorder and agoraphobia. According to a study published in December 2013 in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, its effects lasted as long as two years after the initial treatment. And a study published in August 2017 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology suggested that it may be superior to traditional psychotherapy in the treatment of this condition.
Many neurotransmitters are affected when the body is under the increased stress and anxiety that accompany a panic attack. Some include serotonin, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), dopamine, norepinephrine and glutamate. More research into how these neurotransmitters interact with one another during a panic attack is needed to make any solid conclusions, however.
Exposure therapy for panic disorder allows you to experience the physical sensations of panic in a safe and controlled environment, giving you the opportunity to learn healthier ways of coping. You may be asked to hyperventilate, shake your head from side to side, or hold your breath. These different exercises cause sensations similar to the symptoms of panic. With each exposure, you become less afraid of these internal bodily sensations and feel a greater sense of control over your panic.
Prevention is more effective than treatment for panic attacks. Prevention involves stress management methods such as meditation and mindfulness to reduce your stress so that it doesn’t accumulate and eventually erupt into a panic attack. Prevention is not about stopping a panic attack just before it happens. The best you can do just before a panic attack is manage it.
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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.
The emotional effects of anxiety may include "feelings of apprehension or dread, trouble concentrating, feeling tense or jumpy, anticipating the worst, irritability, restlessness, watching (and waiting) for signs (and occurrences) of danger, and, feeling like your mind's gone blank" as well as "nightmares/bad dreams, obsessions about sensations, déjà vu, a trapped-in-your-mind feeling, and feeling like everything is scary."
During the day if she was out, the attack felt “like my head suddenly weighed a thousand pounds and my chest would get really heavy. It literally felt like something was pulling me down. I would usually have to head home immediately. I would then experience foggy vision where it …actually looked like there was fog in the air. I also experienced double vision and parts of my body—like my neck or one arm or one entire side of my face– would go totally numb.”
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.
Anxiety disorders can often be addressed successfully with a combination of therapy and medication. For therapy, patients may undergo psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, in which they learn to change how they respond to situations that induce anxiety. For medications, clinicians may, for limited periods of time, prescribe antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or tricyclics, tranquilizers such as benzodiazepines; they may also prescribe beta blockers for specific events. Different strategies can also help people who experience feelings of anxiety but the severity of which falls below the clinical threshold for diagnosis. Habits such as exercising, sleeping well, and limiting the amount of caffeine and alcohol consumed can prove helpful. Strategies such as taking deep breaths, acknowledging limits to fully controlling situations, pushing back against anxious or irrational thoughts, and observing the circumstances that tend to produce anxiety are proven to reduce anxiety by helping people feel better prepared in the future.
There are long-term, biological, environmental, and social causes of panic attacks. In 1993, Fava et al. proposed a staging method of understanding the origins of disorders. The first stage in developing a disorder involves predisposing factors, such as genetics, personality, and a lack of wellbeing. Panic disorder often occurs in early adulthood, although it may appear at any age. It occurs more frequently in women and more often in people with above-average intelligence. Various twin studies where one identical twin has an anxiety disorder have reported a 31–88% incidence of the other twin also having an anxiety disorder diagnosis.
Research upon adolescents who as infants had been highly apprehensive, vigilant, and fearful finds that their nucleus accumbens is more sensitive than that in other people when deciding to make an action that determined whether they received a reward. This suggests a link between circuits responsible for fear and also reward in anxious people. As researchers note, "a sense of 'responsibility', or self-agency, in a context of uncertainty (probabilistic outcomes) drives the neural system underlying appetitive motivation (i.e., nucleus accumbens) more strongly in temperamentally inhibited than noninhibited adolescents".
People with panic disorder often worry about when the next attack will happen and actively try to prevent future attacks by avoiding places, situations, or behaviors they associate with panic attacks. Worry about panic attacks, and the effort spent trying to avoid attacks, cause significant problems in various areas of the person’s life, including the development of agoraphobia (see below).