At some point in our lives, most of us will experience a panic attack in response to an actual danger or acute stress. But when panic attacks occur or recur for no reason and in the absence of danger or extreme stress, or when the fear of experiencing another attack is so strong that you change your behavior by avoiding certain places or people, you may have panic disorder.
Yes, panic attacks are real and potentially quite emotionally disabling. Fortunately, they can be controlled with specific treatments. Because of the disturbing physical signs and symptoms that accompany panic attacks, they may be mistaken for heart attacks or some other life-threatening medical problem. In fact, up to 25% of people who visit emergency rooms because of chest pain are actually experiencing panic. This can lead to people with this symptom often undergoing extensive medical testing to rule out physical conditions. Sadly, sometimes more than 90% of these individuals are not appropriately diagnosed as suffering from panic.
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.
Medication does not cure anxiety disorders but can help relieve symptoms. Medication for anxiety is prescribed by doctors, such as a psychiatrist or primary care provider. Some states also allow psychologists who have received specialized training to prescribe psychiatric medications. The most common classes of medications used to combat anxiety disorders are anti-anxiety drugs (such as benzodiazepines), antidepressants, and beta-blockers.
So how do you know if your anxiety is “normal” or “excessive?” It’s normal to be worried about an upcoming test or wondering how you are going to cope financially when you unexpectedly find out you need major repairs done to your house. If you are suffering from the type of excessive worry that accompanies Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you may see a report on the local news about a new health scare in a different country and stay awake at night worrying about you or your family being affected, even though risks are minimal at best. You will likely spend the next few days and weeks in a constant state of worry about the well-being of your family and experience anxiety that is debilitating, intrusive, excessive, and persistent.
Persistent and excessive fear of a specific object or situation, such as flying, heights, animals, toilets, or seeing blood. Fear is cued by the presence or anticipation of the object/situation and exposure to the phobic stimulus results in an immediate fear response or panic attack. The fear is disproportionate to the actual danger posed by the object or situation. Commonly, adults with specific phobias will recognize that their fear is excessive or unreasonable.
Anxiety is typified by exaggerated worries and expectations of negative outcomes in unknown situations, and such concerns are often accompanied by physical symptoms. These include muscle tension, headaches, stomach cramps, and frequent urination. Behavioral therapies, with or without medication to control symptoms, have proved highly effective against anxiety, especially in children.
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.
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.)
Please Note: In some cases, children, teenagers, and young adults under 25 may experience an increase in suicidal thoughts or behavior when taking antidepressant medications, especially in the first few weeks after starting or when the dose is changed. Because of this, patients of all ages taking antidepressants should be watched closely, especially during the first few weeks of treatment.
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."
Social risk factors for anxiety include a history of trauma (e.g., physical, sexual or emotional abuse or assault), early life experiences and parenting factors (e.g., rejection, lack of warmth, high hostility, harsh discipline, high parental negative affect, anxious childrearing, modelling of dysfunctional and drug-abusing behaviour, discouragement of emotions, poor socialization, poor attachment, and child abuse and neglect), cultural factors (e.g., stoic families/cultures, persecuted minorities including the disabled), and socioeconomics (e.g., uneducated, unemployed, impoverished although developed countries have higher rates of anxiety disorders than developing countries).
Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience spontaneous seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and are very preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack. Panic attacks occur unexpectedly, sometimes even when waking up from sleep. Panic disorder usually begins in adulthood (after age 20), but children can also have panic disorder and many children experience panic-like symptoms (“fearful spells”).
Medications are also a common form of treatment for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The most common types of medications prescribed to individuals living with this form of anxiety include anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and in some cases, sedatives. Antidepressants are used to treat depression, but have been found effective in the treatment of anxiety as well. They commonly take a couple of weeks to start taking effect and may cause some mild side effects, including headache, nausea, or difficulty sleeping. Most of the side effects are mild and tend to subside within a few weeks. Anti-anxiety medication is also often prescribed to help individuals cope with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. These types of drugs are powerful in their treatment of this type of anxiety; one of the most commonly prescribed types is a drug called buspirone often under the brand nane Buspar.
Your brain focuses on some alleged thread, for instance, a very scary thought that was floating somewhere at your subconscious. Your thalamus – the part of the brain responsible for regulating consciousness, sleep and alertness – transfers that information to your amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions, decision-making and memory – which marks it as “danger” and sends a signal to your sympathetic nervous system, activating the fight-or-flight response.
Anxiety disorders often first appear in childhood. This is a very good time to intervene or seek treatment, because children's brains are still developing, and can more easily adapt to new "modes" of thinking, relative to adult brains. Helping your child cope with an anxiety disorder can be a complex task, potentially involving family members, friends, teachers and counselors, and mental health professionals. These five basic tips may also help:
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, work in the brain via a chemical messenger called serotonin. SSRIs commonly prescribed for panic disorder include Fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), escitalopram (Lexapro), paroxetine (Paxil), and citalopram (Celexa). SSRIs are also used to treat panic disorder when it occurs in combination with obsessive-compulsive disorder, social phobia, or depression. SSRI's tend to have fewer side effects than other antidepressants. Patients may initially experience nausea, drowsiness, diarrhea, or sexual side effects when they first take SSRIs, but over time, symptoms subside. An adjustment in dosage or a switch to another SSRI may also correct the problem. Clients should discuss all side effects or concerns with their doctor so that any needed changes in medication can be made.
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.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by unwanted thoughts or behaviors that seem impossible to stop or control. If you have OCD, you may be troubled by obsessions, such as a recurring worry that you forgot to turn off the oven or that you might hurt someone. You may also suffer from uncontrollable compulsions, such as washing your hands over and over.
The mutism must also include impairment in social, academic, or occupational achievement or functioning to qualify as a diagnosis. Selective mutism is not present if it is related to lack of knowledge or comfort with the spoken language required of the situation or is due to embarrassment from a communication or developmental disorder. The symptoms cannot be better accounted for by another mental disorder or be caused by substances, medications, or medical illness.
Had my first panic attack today and wanted to be sure about what I was experiencing. I sat there crying hysterically, hyperventilating, chest shaking, my hands went very numb. Took me about 10 minutes to get sort of calm, sat in the shower for about half an hour afterwards to fully calm myself down. Every time I tried to focus on my breathing and taking longer breaths I would start hyperventilating again. Felt like I was choking, awful awful experience.
There is a long list of signs and symptoms of an anxiety attack. But because each body is somewhat chemically unique, anxiety attacks can affect each person differently. Consequently, anxiety attack symptoms can vary from person to person in type or kind, number, intensity, duration, and frequency. If your symptoms don’t exactly match this list, that doesn’t mean you don’t have anxiety attacks. It simply means that your body is responding to them slightly differently.
“I was under a lot of stress — starting a new business, working 16-hour days, a close friend was ill and dying, and on top of all that, I was doing a super heavy workout regimen at the gym with a trainer," Sideman says. "So it was a lot of physical stress, emotional stress, and a lot of financial stresses." He says he also can see roots of anxiety in his childhood and teen years as well as in other family members.
An anxiety or panic attack often comes on suddenly, with symptoms peaking within 10 minutes. For doctors to diagnose a panic attack, they look for at least four of the following signs: sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, a choking sensation, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, fear of losing your mind, fear of dying, feeling hot or cold, numbness or tingling, a racing heart (heart palpitations), and feeling unusually detached from yourself.
Test anxiety is the uneasiness, apprehension, or nervousness felt by students who have a fear of failing an exam. Students who have test anxiety may experience any of the following: the association of grades with personal worth; fear of embarrassment by a teacher; fear of alienation from parents or friends; time pressures; or feeling a loss of control. Sweating, dizziness, headaches, racing heartbeats, nausea, fidgeting, uncontrollable crying or laughing and drumming on a desk are all common. Because test anxiety hinges on fear of negative evaluation, debate exists as to whether test anxiety is itself a unique anxiety disorder or whether it is a specific type of social phobia. The DSM-IV classifies test anxiety as a type of social phobia.
A panic attack is a response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The most common symptoms include trembling, dyspnea (shortness of breath), heart palpitations, chest pain (or chest tightness), hot flashes, cold flashes, burning sensations (particularly in the facial or neck area), sweating, nausea, dizziness (or slight vertigo), light-headedness, hyperventilation, paresthesias (tingling sensations), sensations of choking or smothering, difficulty moving, and derealization. These physical symptoms are interpreted with alarm in people prone to panic attacks. This results in increased anxiety and forms a positive feedback loop.
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.
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.
When people are confronted with unpleasant and potentially harmful stimuli such as foul odors or tastes, PET-scans show increased bloodflow in the amygdala. In these studies, the participants also reported moderate anxiety. This might indicate that anxiety is a protective mechanism designed to prevent the organism from engaging in potentially harmful behaviors.
Since anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions rather than a single disorder, they can look very different from person to person. One individual may suffer from intense anxiety attacks that strike without warning, while another gets panicky at the thought of mingling at a party. Someone else may struggle with a disabling fear of driving, or uncontrollable, intrusive thoughts. Yet another may live in a constant state of tension, worrying about anything and everything. But despite their different forms, all anxiety disorders illicit an intense fear or anxiety out of proportion to the situation at hand.
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.
Now as you feel slightly calmer, you need to identify and face the roots of the anxiety attack. The truth is – there’s always a trigger for it. Even if it’s not obvious, it’s always there. Panic attacks can happen as a response to a stressful or traumatic issue that happened months ago. Try digging into your mind and thinking of the exact cue that might have caused it. Remember, an anxiety attack is just a host of physical reactions. No matter how real it feels, the danger is usually non-existent.
A panic attack begins suddenly and unexpectedly and most often peaks within 10 to 20 minutes. At times, the resulting anxiety may last a couple of hours. Panic attacks can occur whether the person is calm or anxious. Recalling a past attack may trigger a new one. The frequency of panic attacks can vary, and for some people the fear of having an additional attack may lead them to avoid situations where escape may be difficult, such as being in a crowd or traveling in a car or bus.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder affects people after terrifying events such as physical or sexual abuse, car accidents, war or natural disasters. Individuals with PTSD may experience depression, flashbacks, nightmares, sleep difficulties, irritability, aggression, violence, and a feeling of detachment or numbness. Symptoms can be triggered by anything that reminds the individual of their trauma.
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).
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Separation anxiety disorder: Separation anxiety is often thought of as something that only children deal with; however, adults can also be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder. People who have separation anxiety disorder have fears about being parted from people to whom they are attached. They often worry that some sort of harm or something untoward will happen to their attachment figures while they are separated. This fear leads them to avoid being separated from their attachment figures and to avoid being alone. People with separation anxiety may have nightmares about being separated from attachment figures or experience physical symptoms when separation occurs or is anticipated.