A panic attack? I thought panic attacks were reserved for women who were overly emotional and struggled with a mood disorder. The picture I had of these women from after-school movies and health class worksheets hadn’t prepared me for the idea that a relatively happy wife, mother, teacher, writer, and friend could be suffering from a panic attack. This had to be wrong.
Some people find that medication alone can be helpful in the treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, while others are more likely to benefit from psychotherapy. Some find that the combination of psychotherapy and medication is the best course of action. Engaging in certain behaviors may also ease your anxiety and promote a healthier lifestyle. These include:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is considered to be the gold standard of treatment, especially for panic disorder. CBT focuses on educating clients about their disorders, identifying and changing maladaptive thoughts and fears, learning relaxation and other coping strategies, and helping clients face their fears. Research has shown that CBT for panic disorder is also effective when there are other comorbid disorders present as well and that the key component that makes CBT effective is the exposure ("facing your fears") module (Hofmann, 2011).
Without treatment, panic attacks tend to occur repeatedly for months or years. While they typically begin in young adulthood, the symptoms may arise earlier or later in life in some people. Complications, which are symptoms that can develop as a result of continued panic attacks and develop into other mental illnesses, may include specific irrational fears (phobias), especially of leaving home (agoraphobia) and avoidance of social situations. Other possible complications can include depression, work or school problems, suicidal thoughts or actions, financial problems, and alcohol or other substance abuse. For children and adolescents, panic disorder can even interfere with normal development. Panic disorder and other anxiety disorders also predispose sufferers to developing heart or gastrointestinal diseases, high blood pressure or diabetes, having more severe symptoms if they have a respiratory disease, and of dying prematurely.
Chest pain is always an alarming symptom, because most of us (appropriately) associate it with cardiac conditions, in particular angina or a myocardial infarction (heart attack). However, chest pain can also be caused by a number of conditions that have nothing to do with the heart. And one of the more common non-cardiac problems that frequently produces chest pain is an anxiety attack.
“I thought I would be smart, take care of myself, and not go out as much,” Sideman says. He managed to find ways to build his business without leaving his home office. After he had a panic attack on a freeway, he decided to avoid driving on the freeway — a tough stand to take in Los Angeles. He kept withdrawing from activities to try to avoid panic attacks, but that never solved the problem, he says, and after two and a half years, he realized the attacks were getting worse.
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.
If you're having lots of panic attacks at unpredictable times and there doesn't seem to be a particular trigger or cause, you might be given a diagnosis of panic disorder. It's common to experience panic disorder and agoraphobia (a type of phobia) together. People who experience panic disorder may have some periods with few or no panic attacks, but have lots at other times.
The symptoms of a panic attack may cause the person to feel that their body is failing. The symptoms can be understood as follows. First, there is frequently the sudden onset of fear with little provoking stimulus. This leads to a release of adrenaline (epinephrine) which brings about the fight-or-flight response when the body prepares for strenuous physical activity. This leads to an increased heart rate (tachycardia), rapid breathing (hyperventilation) which may be perceived as shortness of breath (dyspnea), and sweating. Because strenuous activity rarely ensues, the hyperventilation leads to a drop in carbon dioxide levels in the lungs and then in the blood. This leads to shifts in blood pH (respiratory alkalosis or hypocapnia), causing compensatory metabolic acidosis activating chemosensing mechanisms which translate this pH shift into autonomic and respiratory responses. The person him/herself may overlook the hyperventilation, having become preoccupied with the associated somatic symptoms.
“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.
Try to adopt a more casual attitude. so when you feel your heart start beating faster, say something to yourself like: Oops! Something set off my stress response, can’t see anything dangerous here. I’ll just wait for a few minutes for my brain and body to realize I’m not in any danger”. This type of self-talk is much better than “There’s something wrong with my heart! I’m having a heart attack, I’m dying!!”
Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD): In OCD, a person becomes trapped in a pattern of repetitive thoughts and behaviors that are senseless and distressing but extremely difficult to overcome. Such rituals as counting, prolonged handwashing, and repeatedly checking for danger may occupy much of the person’s time and interfere with other activities. Like panic disorder, OCD can be treated effectively with medication and/or psychotherapy.
Antidepressants are medications used to treat symptoms of depression but can also used to treat anxiety symptoms as well. In particular, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are the primary class of antidepressant used to treat anxiety. SSRIs commonly used to treat anxiety are escitalopram (Lexapro) and paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva). SNRI medications used to treat anxiety include duloxetine (Cymbalta), venlafaxine (Effexor XR).
Panic Disorder: People with panic disorder have panic attacks with feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. During the attacks, individuals may feel like they can't breathe, have lost control, are having a heart attack or even that they are dying. Physical symptoms may include chest pain, dizziness, nausea, sweating, tingling or numbness, and a racing heartbeat. Some people will have one isolated attack, while others will develop a long term panic disorder; either way, there is often high anxiety between attacks because there is no way of knowing when the next one will occur. Panic disorders often begin early in adulthood. Many people with panic disorder also suffer from agoraphobia (abnormal fear of open or public places.). See more on Panic Attacks.
While the term "test anxiety" refers specifically to students, many workers share the same experience with regard to their career or profession. The fear of failing at a task and being negatively evaluated for failure can have a similarly negative effect on the adult. Management of test anxiety focuses on achieving relaxation and developing mechanisms to manage anxiety.
According to the American Psychological Association, "most specialists agree that a combination of cognitive and behavioral therapies are the best treatment for panic disorder. Medication might also be appropriate in some cases." The first part of therapy is largely informational; many people are greatly helped by simply understanding exactly what panic disorder is and how many others suffer from it. Many people who suffer from panic disorder are worried that their panic attacks mean they are "going crazy" or that the panic might induce a heart attack. Cognitive restructuring helps people replace those thoughts with more realistic, positive ways of viewing the attacks. Avoidance behavior is one of the key aspects that prevent people with frequent panic attacks from functioning healthily. Exposure therapy, which includes repeated and prolonged confrontation with feared situations and body sensations, helps weaken anxiety responses to these external and internal stimuli and reinforce realistic ways of viewing panic symptoms.
Psychotherapy – often referred to as “talk” therapy is one treatment option. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a very common method of psychotherapy that has shown great results for people living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This form of therapy is geared toward helping you recognize and understand your thoughts and the pattern of any negative thoughts you may experience. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on teaching you coping skills or mechanisms you can use to help you return to normal functioning and ease your feelings of anxiety. It is normally a short-term therapy and people who undergo this type of psychotherapy have found great results.
Panic disorder can greatly impact a person's quality of life, limiting your life, and causing you to miss out on many things, including anything beyond your door. That said, there are many effective treatments and strategies which can help people overcome panic attacks. You can learn to manage the symptoms of panic disorder and regain control over your life!
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.
So I can tell you that panic attacks aren't dangerous, but I recognize that this is "easy for me to say". If you're having anxiety attacks, especially if they're a relatively new occurrence for you, you might not be able to believe this right now. That's entirely understandable when you feel that your life is threatened! You don't need to take anything here on faith. Instead, check it all out. Test everything I say against your own experience, as you work your way through this site.
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.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides this online resource for locating mental health treatment facilities and programs. The Mental Health Treatment Locator section of the Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator lists facilities providing mental health services to persons with mental illness. Find a facility in your state at https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/. For additional resources, visit www.nimh.nih.gov/findhelp.
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: