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.
The typical course of panic disorder begins in adolescence and peaks in early to mid-twenties, with symptoms rarely present in children under the age of 14 or in older adults over the age of 64 (Kessler et al., 2012). Caregivers can look for symptoms of panic attacks in adolescents, followed by notable changes in their behavior (e.g., avoiding experiencing strong physical sensations), to help potentially identify the onset of panic disorder. Panic disorder is most likely to develop between the ages of 20-24 years and although females are more likely to have panic disorder, there are no significant sex differences in how the disorder presents (McLean et al., 2011).
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.
It is not clear what causes panic disorder. In many people who have the biological vulnerability to panic attacks, they may develop in association with major life changes (such as getting married, having a child, starting a first job, etc.) and major lifestyle stressors. There is also some evidence that suggests that the tendency to develop panic disorder may run in families. People who suffer from panic disorder are also more likely than others to suffer from depression, attempt suicide, or to abuse alcohol or drugs.
Anxiety disorders are treated through medication and therapy. You might feel embarrassed talking about the things you are feeling and thinking, but talking about it, say experts, is the best treatment. A particular form of therapy is considered most effective: cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT for short. Antidepressants — the types of medication most frequently used to treat depression — are the drugs that also work best for anxiety disorders.
For example, a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder may experience a panic attack when their schedule or compulsions are interrupted. Individuals who struggle with specific phobias are also susceptible to panic attacks. A person with an extreme fear of heights (acrophobia) may experience a panic attack in a penthouse apartment. And for someone with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a condition characterized by extreme fear or worry, the unending anxiety can escalate to a panic attack. People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a higher incidence of panic disorder than the general population. Illness or traumatic events increase the chances of panic attacks.
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.
People who have panic attacks typically spend a lot of time worrying about having more attacks and often make seemingly unreasonable lifestyle changes in an attempt to avoid circumstances that will trigger future attacks. They may avoid situations that, they feel, have precipitated previous episodes or environments where they would not be able to escape easily if another attack should occur.
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.
Panic disorder involves repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks). You may have feelings of impending doom, shortness of breath, chest pain, or a rapid, fluttering or pounding heart (heart palpitations). These panic attacks may lead to worrying about them happening again or avoiding situations in which they've occurred.
Occasional anxiety is an expected part of life. You might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or before making an important decision. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The symptoms can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships.