Anxiety can be caused by numerous factors, ranging from external stimuli, emotional abandonment, shame, to experiencing an extreme reaction when first exposed to something potentially anxiety-provoking. Research has not yet explained why some people will experience a panic attack or develop a phobia, while others growing up in the same family and shared experiences do not. It is likely that anxiety disorders, like all mental illness, is caused by a complex combination of factors not yet fully understood. These factors likely include childhood development, genetics, neurobiology, psychological factors, personality development, and social and environmental cues.
People will often experience panic attacks as a direct result of exposure to an object/situation that they have a phobia for. Panic attacks may also become situationally-bound when certain situations are associated with panic due to previously experiencing an attack in that particular situation. People may also have a cognitive or behavioral predisposition to having panic attacks in certain situations.
Exposure therapy has been around for a long time. It involves exposing the patient in a safe and controlled environment to physical sensations they experience during a panic attack much the same way you‘d expose in small increments a person with a fear of trains or puppies or snakes to the things that scares them. With panic disorder, there’s often a heightened sensitivity to ordinary physical sensations such as racing heart, stomach ache or feeling faint. In exposure therapy, the therapist will ask you to mimic activities—like running around or doing jumping jacks or holding your breath—to cause panic symptoms. The idea is that by repeating the things that may trigger a panic attack those triggers will eventually lose their power.
Agoraphobia is the fear of being in situations where escape may be difficult or embarrassing, or help might not be available in the event of panic symptoms. The fear is out of proportion to the actual situation and lasts generally six months or more and causes problems in functioning. A person with agoraphobia experiences this fear in two or more of the following situations:
Anxiety disorders are associated with chronic life stress. Unpredictable, unrelenting, unresolvable stressors chronically stimulate the stress hormone system and cardiovascular system, and lead to states of constant increased activity. Biologically, the body has evolved to deal with imminent and concrete danger in the environment, rather than continuous stressors. Under normal conditions where chronic stress is low, exposure to a sudden threat activates the autonomic nervous system, i.e. increased levels of adrenaline and faster breathing, and racing heart rate. These reactions in turn trigger activation of stress hormones, such as cortisol. One of the effects of these stress hormones is to increase glucose levels in the bloodstream in order to respond to the imminent threat, so that muscles can be activated for the flight or fight response. Another effect of stress hormones is to supress the immune system, since processes such as healing and repair can wait until after the threat subsides. However, in someone with an anxiety disorder, where there is constant activation of these responses to everyday stressors, the stress hormone system loses its ability to control immune function, thus contributing to heightened systemic inflammation that increases risk for cardiovascular and even autoimmune disorders. Neuroscience and clinical research continues to investigate how anxiety disorders increase individual risk for developing physical health co-morbidities in hopes of identifying new treatments that may alleviate suffering from and prevent the development of these whole-body disorders.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by chronic and exaggerated worry and tension, much more than the typical anxiety that most people experience in their daily lives. People may have trembling, twitching, muscle tension, nausea, irritability, poor concentration, depression, fatigue, headaches, light-headedness, breathlessness or hot flashes.
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.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the U.S., affecting more than 18% of the population. They are even more common among children, affecting an estimated 25% of children between the ages of 13 and 18. The most common anxiety disorders are Specific Phobias, affecting 8.7% of the population, and Social Anxiety, affecting 6.8% of the population.
Psychologically, people who develop panic attacks or another anxiety disorder are more likely to have a history of what is called anxiety sensitivity. Anxiety sensitivity is the tendency for a person to fear that anxiety-related bodily sensations (like brief chest pain or stomach upset) have dire personal consequences (for example, believing that it automatically means their heart will stop or they will throw up, respectively). From a social standpoint, a risk factor for developing panic disorder as an adolescent or adult is a history of being physically or sexually abused as a child. This is even more the case for panic disorder when compared to other anxiety disorders. Often, the first attacks are triggered by physical illnesses, another major life stress, or perhaps medications that increase activity in the part of the brain involved in fear reactions.
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.
Benzodiazepines are sedatives indicated for anxiety, epilepsy, alcohol withdrawal and muscle spasms. Benzodiazepines demonstrate short-term effectiveness in the treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and can help with sleep disturbances. A doctor may prescribe these drugs for a limited period of time to relieve acute symptoms of anxiety. However, long-term use of these medications is discouraged because they have a strong sedative effect and can be habit forming. In addition, taking benzodiazepines while also engaging in psychotherapy such as PE can reduce the effectiveness of the exposuere therapy,. Some well-known brand names are Librium, Xanax, Valium, and Ativan.
Anxiety attacks symptoms and heart attack symptoms can seem similar because their signs and symptoms can be similar. But most medical professionals can quickly tell the difference as heart attacks have distinct symptoms that aren’t anxiety-like. If you are unsure of which is an anxiety attack symptom and which is a heart attack symptom, seek immediate medical advice. If the doctor diagnoses your symptoms as anxiety attack symptoms, you can feel confident the doctor’s diagnosis is correct. Therefore, there is no need to worry about a heart attack.
Connect with others. Loneliness and isolation can trigger or worsen anxiety, while talking about your worries face to face can often make them seem less overwhelming. Make it a point to regularly meet up with friends, join a self-help or support group, or share your worries and concerns with a trusted loved one. If you don’t have anyone you can reach out to, it’s never too late to build new friendships and a support network.
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in The Concept of Anxiety (1844), described anxiety or dread associated with the "dizziness of freedom" and suggested the possibility for positive resolution of anxiety through the self-conscious exercise of responsibility and choosing. In Art and Artist (1932), the psychologist Otto Rank wrote that the psychological trauma of birth was the pre-eminent human symbol of existential anxiety and encompasses the creative person's simultaneous fear of – and desire for – separation, individuation, and differentiation.
Because symptoms are so severe, many people who experience a panic attack may believe they are having a heart attack or other life-threatening illness and may go to a hospital ER. Panic attacks may be expected, such as a response to a feared object, or unexpected, apparently occurring for no reason. The mean age for onset of panic disorder is 22-23. Panic attacks may occur with other mental disorders such as depression or PTSD.
If the person has a family history of seizures or symptoms that are not typical for panic attack, a neurologist may be asked to evaluate the person. There is some overlap between the symptoms of panic attack and what is known as "partial seizures." Distinguishing between the two is important because the treatment for each is quite different. A neurologist, if consulted, will order an EEG (electroencephalogram) to check for seizure activity in the brain. This is a painless test but does require some time to complete (typically overnight).
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.
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.
Secondly, the psychobiological conceptualization of panic disorder emphasizes the influence of psychological factors (Meuret, White, Ritz, Roth, Hofmann, & Brown, 2006). This psychological factor refers to a fear of bodily sensations, or a certain set of beliefs that lead individuals to be especially afraid of physical symptoms, such as believing that a racing heart could mean heart disease. Sometimes this is discussed as anxiety sensitivity or a belief that anxiety is harmful. Again, having the belief that physical symptoms are harmful may increase the likelihood of experiencing a panic attack, but it does not make having a panic attack inevitable. Instead, panic attacks can seem abnormal if they occur at the wrong time, when there is no real reason to be afraid. It is important to consider, however, that anxiety can also be adaptive or helpful in contexts where there is true threat.
A number of medical conditions can cause anxiety symptoms. These include an overactive thyroid, hypoglycemia, mitral valve prolapse, anemia, asthma, COPD, inflammatory bowel disease, Parkinson's disease, and dementia among others. Your physician may perform certain tests to rule out these conditions. But it is important to remember that anxiety is more often due to poor coping skills or substance abuse than any medical condition.
During the day if she was out, the attack felt “like my head suddenly weighed a thousand pounds and my chest would get really heavy. It literally felt like something was pulling me down. I would usually have to head home immediately. I would then experience foggy vision where it …actually looked like there was fog in the air. I also experienced double vision and parts of my body—like my neck or one arm or one entire side of my face– would go totally numb.”
Don’t panic. That’s a phrase we hear countless times in a day. We hear it in conversation, on TV, in the movies. We say it to ourselves. Why? Because when we panic– experience an intense sensation of fear or anxiety in response to an actual danger—we are more likely to lose control and react to potentially unsafe even life-threatening events in a frantic or irrational way. Panic inhibits our ability to reason clearly or logically. Think about the explosion of fear, the borderline hysteria you felt the day you momentarily lost sight of your six-year-old in the mall. Or the time your car skidded violently on a rain-soaked road. Even before you registered what was happening, your body released adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones that signal danger. Those hormones cause physical reactions: heart pounding, shallow breathing, sweating and shivering, shaking, and other unpleasant physical sensations.
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.
My dad passed away in November and I went back to work after a month, a month later I was given another client to work on. I felt really stressed out. I found myself feeling irrationally angry about things at work, build things up in my head to be really bad and then I would need to cry to release it, I have had two recent experiences of what I think are panic/anxiety attacks- feeling overwhelmed/stressed/negative thoughts and then hyperventilating with non-stop crying. I am seeing a psychiatrist who I think is helping. But short-term I think I need to tell work about how I am feeling. I want to quit and have time off but get worried about money.
Because involuntary panic attacks can be caused by other medical conditions, such as mitral valve prolapse, thyroid problems, hyperglycemia, side effects from certain types of medications, recreational drug use (such as marijuana), stimulants, etc., it’s best to discuss your panic attacks and symptoms with your doctor to rule out any medical cause.
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).
People with panic disorder may also experience comorbid bipolar disorder, alcohol or substance use disorder, or medical problems that accompany their panic. It is common for individuals with panic disorder to have thyroid problems, respiratory issues, heart problems, or feelings of dizziness (APA, 2013). In general, it has been reported that 93.7% of people with panic disorder meet criteria for at least one other medical or mental disorder (Arch, Kirk, & Craske, 2017). That being said, comorbidity is not inevitable with panic disorder and it is important to discuss your symptoms thoroughly with a medical professional. Additionally, the causality of the link between panic disorders and medical problems remains unclear.
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.