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.
People who have had a panic attack in certain situations may develop irrational fears, called phobias, of these situations and begin to avoid them. Eventually, the pattern of avoidance and level of anxiety about another attack may reach the point where individuals with panic disorder are unable to drive or even step out of the house. At this stage, the person is said to have panic disorder with agoraphobia.
DISCLAIMER: Because each body is somewhat chemically unique, and because each person will have a unique mix of symptoms and underlying factors, recovery results may vary. Variances can occur for many reasons, including due to the severity of the condition, the ability of the person to apply the recovery concepts, and the commitment to making behavioral change.
This may sound counter-intuitive but trying to accept one's emotional experience can be very helpful during panic attacks. Remind yourself that anxiety is like a wave, what goes up must come down. Fighting against the experience engages the "fear of fear" cycle that can make you feel even worse. If you notice panic symptoms creeping up, label your experience and you remind yourself, "I will be okay. This will pass in time." Accepting your experience, rather than fighting against it, will likely help your panic symptoms reduce more quickly and will feel easier along the way.
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.
Almost everyone experiencing symptoms of a panic attack needs evaluation. Unless the person has a history of having panic attacks, is otherwise healthy, and is experiencing a typical attack, they must be evaluated promptly by a doctor. The level of evaluation depends on many factors. Err on the side of safety when deciding whether to go to a hospital's emergency department.
Psychotherapy is at least as important as medication treatment of panic disorder. In fact, research shows that psychotherapy alone or the combination of medication and psychotherapy treatment are more effective than medications alone in overcoming panic attacks. To address anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy is widely accepted as an effective form of psychotherapy. This form of therapy seeks to help those with panic disorder identify and decrease the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that reinforce panic symptoms. Behavioral techniques that are often used to decrease anxiety include relaxation and gradually increasing the panic sufferer's exposure to situations that may have previously caused anxiety. Helping the anxiety sufferer understand the emotional issues that may have contributed to developing symptoms is called panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy and has also been found to be effective.
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.
There are many highly effective treatment options available for anxiety and anxiety-related disorders. These treatments can be broadly categorized as: 1) Psychotherapy; 2) Medications; and 3) Complementary and Alternative Therapies. Patients diagnosed with anxiety can benefit from one or a combination of these various therapies. Discussions of emerging therapies and types of care providers are also included.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is form of Cognitive therapy that emphasizes individual psychotherapy as well as group skills training to help people learns new skills and strategies—including mindfulness and distress tolerance– to manage their anxiety and panic. According to the American Psychological Association therapists who practicing DBT aim to strike a balance between validation and change by clearly communicating acceptance of who the client is and the challenges the client faces, while at the same time helping the client to learn new skills to improve emotion regulation, interpersonal communication skills and how to participate in life and cope with problems without defaulting to impulsive behavior.
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."
Nevertheless, if you are struggling with symptoms of an anxiety disorder it is not uncommon to feel alone and misunderstood. Because the fear that people with an anxiety disorder have is not experienced by others, they may not understand why, for example, being in a crowd of people, not being able to wash your hands after meeting a new person, or driving through the street where you got in a car accident can be really anxiety-provoking for someone with an anxiety disorder. People may comment that "there is no reason to worry about it" or that you "should just let it go".
There are many types of psychotherapies used to treat anxiety. Unlike counseling, psychotherapy is more long-term and targets a broader range of issues such as patterns of behavior. The patient's particular anxiety diagnosis and personal preference guides what therapies would be best suited to treat them. The ultimate goal with any type of psychotherapy, is to help the patient regulate their emotions, manage stress, understand patterns in behavior that affect their interpersonal relationships. Evidenced-based therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE), and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) are some of the most effective at treating anxiety.
Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that is characterized by fear and worry. One of the most salient symptoms is the experience of persistent and often unanticipated panic attacks. Panic attacks are typically experienced through a combination of frightening physical sensations and distressing thoughts and emotions. These attacks bring on severe apprehension and discomfort, despite a lack of actual threat or danger.
ACT is a type of CBT that encourages patients to again in positive behaviors even in the presence of negative thoughts and behaviors. The goal is to improve daily functioning despire having the disorder. It is particularly useful for treatment-resistant Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Depression. The length of treatment varies depending on the severity of symptoms.
To activate your parasympathetic nervous system, use this simple meditation technique: focus your gaze on an imaginary point in front of you; relax your focus and use your peripheral vision, as if you are trying to take in everything around you with soft focus. It signals to your brain to relax. The more you practice this technique – the faster it will help you to relax in any situation.
Guided imagery is another relaxation strategy that can help reduce or prevent overwhelming anxiety. Guided imagery involves directed mental visualization to evoke relaxation. This could involve imagining your favorite beach or a peaceful garden that can distract you from your anxious state and allow your mind and body to focus on the positive thoughts and sensations of the imagery exercise.
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.
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.
A panic attack may be a one-time occurrence, although many people experience repeat episodes. Recurrent panic attacks are often triggered by a specific situation, such as crossing a bridge or speaking in public—especially if that situation has caused a panic attack before. Usually, the panic-inducing situation is one in which you feel endangered and unable to escape, triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response.
In fact, some studies have suggested that people with chronic anxiety disorders have an increased prevalence of CAD—that is, chronic anxiety may be a risk factor for CAD. So doctors should not be too quick to simply write the chest pain off as being “simply” due to anxiety. They should at least entertain the possibility that both disorders may be present and should do an appropriate evaluation.
Anxiety attacks can last anywhere between a few moments to 30 or more minutes. It’s also common for subsequent anxiety attacks to follow, causing the overall anxiety attack experience to last much longer as one episode is followed by another. Even though anxiety attacks eventually end, it’s common for the symptoms and after effects of an anxiety attack to linger for hours or even days, depending upon the severity of the attack and the level of stress your body is under.
While obsessive-compulsive disorder is not officially classified by the American Psychological Association as an anxiety disorder, it shares many traits with common anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder. In both conditions, you may know that your thoughts are irrational, but you feel unable to stop thinking them. Often, but not always, these thoughts may concern cleanliness, sex, or religion.
Characterized by a suite of symptoms that persist for at least three days and up to one month after a traumatic experience (same diagnostic criteria for "trauma" as listed above). The specific symptoms of the disorder vary across individuals, but a common feature is intense anxiety in response to re-experiencing symptoms (e.g., recurrent intrusive recollections of traumatic event) of the trauma.
We have all felt anxiety—the nervousness before a date, test, competition, presentation—but what exactly is it? Anxiety is our body's way of preparing to face a challenge. Our heart pumps more blood and oxygen so we are ready for action. We are alert and perform physical and emotional tasks more efficiently. (See also Test Anxiety for tips on dealing with tests.)
Seeing a friend or loved one suffering a panic attack can be frightening. Their breathing may become abnormally fast and shallow, they could become dizzy or light-headed, tremble, sweat, feel nauseous, or think they’re having a heart attack. No matter how irrational you think their panicked response to a situation is, it’s important to remember that the danger seems very real to your loved one. Simply telling them to calm down or minimizing their fear won’t help. But by helping your loved one ride out a panic attack, you can help them feel less fearful of any future attacks.
When you have an attack, your breath is too short and shallow, meaning it worsens further symptoms. Once you feel the panic – stand up and start doing some simple stretching. If you manage to squeeze in a yawn, that will help you tame the attack even faster. Stretching and yawning instantly helps you relieve muscle tension and interrupt the vicious cycle that is just about to roll in full strength.
Yes, panic attacks can feel awful, intense, and threatening. But they aren’t harmful and generally pass when the body calms down. And yes, they can range in number, intensity, and frequency with each person experiencing a unique set of panic attack symptoms. But panic attacks and their symptoms can be overcome for good by getting the right information, help, and support. We provide more detailed information in the Recovery Support area of our website.
Genetic risk factors have been documented for all anxiety disorders. Clinical genetic studies indicate that heritability estimates for anxiety disorders range from 30-67%. Many studies, past and present, have focused on identifying specific genetic factors that increase one's risk for an anxiety disorder. To date, an array of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) or small variations in genetic code, that confer heightened risk for anxiety have been discovered. For the most part, the variants that have been associated with risk for anxiety are located within genes that are critical for the expression and regulation of neurotransmitter systems or stress hormones.
2.This exposure happened either by directly experiencing the event(s), witnessing the event(s) in person, learning that the event(s) happened to a close friend or loved one (note: for cases of death or near death, it must have been violent or accidental), or being repeatedly exposed to the aversive details from traumatic events (e.g., as an emergency room doctor or nurse who frequently sees dead and mutilated bodies).
If medications are prescribed, several options are available. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SSNRIs), and the benzodiazepine families of medications are considered to be effective treatment of panic disorder. SSRIs include sertraline (Zoloft), fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), and fluvoxamine (Luvox). SSNRIs include duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor). Clinical trials have shown SSRIs reduce the frequency of panic attack up to 75%-85%. SSRIs must be taken three to six weeks before they are effective in reducing panic attacks and are taken once daily.
NOTE: The Symptoms Listing section in the Recovery Support area of our website contains detailed information about most of the symptoms commonly associated with anxiety and panic. This information includes the sensations commonly experienced, whether it is an anxiety symptom or not, what causes them to occur, and what you can do to treat them. Much of this information isn’t found elsewhere.
For more information, please visit Mental Health Medications Health Topic webpage. Please note that any information on this website regarding medications is provided for educational purposes only and may be outdated. Diagnosis and treatment decisions should be made in consultation with your doctor. Information about medications changes frequently. Please visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website for the latest information on warnings, patient medication guides, or newly approved medications.