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.
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.
People with panic attacks often report a fear of dying or heart attack, flashing vision, faintness or nausea, numbness throughout the body, heavy breathing and hyperventilation, or loss of body control. Some people also suffer from tunnel vision, mostly due to blood flow leaving the head to more critical parts of the body in defense. These feelings may provoke a strong urge to escape or flee the place where the attack began (a consequence of the "fight-or-flight response", in which the hormone causing this response is released in significant amounts). This response floods the body with hormones, particularly epinephrine (adrenaline), which aid it in defending against harm.
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.
Exercise regularly. Exercise is a natural stress buster and anxiety reliever. To achieve the maximum benefit, aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days (broken up into short periods if that’s easier). Rhythmic activities that require moving both your arms and legs are especially effective. Try walking, running, swimming, martial arts, or dancing.
Although breathing into a paper bag was a common recommendation for short-term treatment of symptoms of an acute panic attack, it has been criticized as inferior to measured breathing, potentially worsening the panic attack and possibly reducing needed blood oxygen. While the paper bag technique increases needed carbon dioxide and so reduces symptoms, it may excessively lower oxygen levels in the blood stream.
"The fight-or-flight system is hardwired for us humans to manage dangerous situations, and those of us with anxiety have an activated fight-or-flight response when the trigger is not really dangerous," says Beth Salcedo, MD, the medical director of The Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders and board president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
The problem with catastrophizing is that it is rigid thinking. Suppose you worry that you’re having a heart attack every time you experience some chest pain. It’s usually easy for a health professional to distinguish between anxiety and a heart attack. But catastrophizing resists new information. Even though, your doctor has done tests in the past and has reassured you many times, you worry that this time will be different. Your exaggerated fear is preventing you from changing your thinking, and is keeping you stuck.
Antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are commonly used as first-line treatments for anxiety. Less-commonly used — but effective — treatments for anxiety disorders are older classes of antidepressants, such as tricyclic antidepressants and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).
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.
Seek medical follow-up. For those who are diagnosed with panic disorder, depression, or another form of anxiety disorder, the news is encouraging when treatment is received. These disorders are usually well controlled with medications. However, many people suffer the effects of these illnesses for years before coming to a doctor for evaluation. These conditions can be extremely disabling, so follow-up after the initial visit to the doctor is crucial so that diagnosis and treatment can continue.
Selective mutism: A somewhat rare disorder associated with anxiety is selective mutism. Selective mutism occurs when people fail to speak in specific social situations despite having normal language skills. Selective mutism usually occurs before the age of 5 and is often associated with extreme shyness, fear of social embarrassment, compulsive traits, withdrawal, clinging behavior, and temper tantrums. People diagnosed with selective mutism are often also diagnosed with other anxiety disorders.