A helpful approach to distinguishing normal anxiety from an anxiety disorder is to identify the cause of the anxiety, and then assess whether the anxiety symptoms are a proportional response to it. Worries, fears, and intrusive thoughts that are extreme, unrealistic, or exaggerated and interfere with normal life and functioning could constitute an anxiety disorder. For instance, being concerned about getting sick and taking steps to avoid germs, like using hand sanitizer and avoiding touching door handles, does not necessarily constitute an anxiety disorder; however, if the concern about sickness makes it difficult to leave the house, then it is possible that the person suffers from an anxiety or anxiety-related disorder.
The above statements are two examples of what a panic attack might feel like. Panic attacks may be symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Historically, panic has been described in ancient civilizations, as with the reaction of the subjects of Ramses II to his death in 1213 BC in Egypt, and in Greek mythology as the reaction that people had to seeing Pan, the half man, half goat god of flocks and shepherds. In medieval then Renaissance Europe, severe anxiety was grouped with depression in descriptions of what was then called melancholia. During the 19th century, panic symptoms began to be described as neurosis, and eventually the word panic began being used in psychiatry.
Repeated and persistent thoughts ("obsessions") that typically cause distress and that an individual attempts to alleviate by repeatedly performing specific actions ("compulsions"). Examples of common obsessions include: fear that failing to do things in a particular way will result in harm to self or others, extreme anxiety about being dirty or contaminated by germs, concern about forgetting to do something important that may result in bad outcomes, or obsessions around exactness or symmetry. Examples of common compulsions include: checking (e.g., that the door is locked or for an error), counting or ordering (e.g., money or household items), and performing a mental action (e.g., praying).
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."
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.
• Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate • Sweating • Trembling or shaking • Shortness of breath or a sensation of smothering • A choking feeling • Chest pain or discomfort • Nausea or abdominal distress • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint • Feeling detached from oneself or reality • Fear of losing control or of impending doom • Fear of dying • Numbness or a tingling sensation • Chills or hot flashes
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.
According to a study published in Psychology Medicine1, people who suffer from panic attacks and panic disorder may be at higher risk of heart attack and heart disease later in life. While the link between panic disorder and heart disease remains controversial, the study found that compared to individuals without panic disorder, sufferers were found to have up to a 36% higher risk of heart attack and up to 47% higher risk of heart disease. If you suffer from panic attacks, seek attention for any chest pain symptoms in order to rule out any issues with heart health.
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.
Practice relaxation techniques. When practiced regularly, activities such as yoga, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation strengthen the body’s relaxation response—the opposite of the stress response involved in anxiety and panic. And not only do these relaxation practices promote relaxation, but they also increase feelings of joy and equanimity.
Watch: Bullying Exerts Psychological Effects into Adulthood: Once considered a childhood rite of passage, bullying is no longer seen as benign. Its effects linger well into adulthood. Bullies and victims alike are at risk for psychiatric problems such as anxiety, depression, substance misuse, and suicide when they become adults, according to a study partially funded by the NIMH that was published in the April 2013 issue of JAMA Psychiatry.
Generalized anxiety disorder is a condition in which your worries overwhelm you to the point where your daily routine seems difficult to carry out, and you have been worrying this way for at least six months. You may feel on edge and have difficulty focusing on tasks. There may be a tendency to fear and expect the worst; some call this catastrophic thinking. You even may know that your worries are perhaps irrational, but you still go on feeling them.
Social anxiety varies in degree and severity. For some people, it is characterized by experiencing discomfort or awkwardness during physical social contact (e.g. embracing, shaking hands, etc.), while in other cases it can lead to a fear of interacting with unfamiliar people altogether. Those suffering from this condition may restrict their lifestyles to accommodate the anxiety, minimizing social interaction whenever possible. Social anxiety also forms a core aspect of certain personality disorders, including avoidant personality disorder.
Anxiety disorders increase one's chances for suffering from other medical illness, such as cardiovascular disorders, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes. More specifically, increased body weight and abdominal fat, high blood pressure, and greater levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose have all been linked to anxiety. While it is still unclear what causes the high co-morbidity between anxiety and bad physical health outcomes, research suggests that changes in underlying biology that is characteristic of anxiety may also facilitate the emergence for these other physical health outcomes over time. For example, changes in stress hormones, autonomic responses, as well as heightened systemic inflammation are all associated with anxiety disorders and negative health outcomes. These shared physiological states suggest a shared underlying biology and that anxiety maybe a whole-body condition.
Please note that it is not a good idea to attempt to diagnose or label a friend or family member. Only a mental health professional can diagnose an anxiety disorder, as many disorders have overlapping features, and can go together with other types of mental health difficulties. However, if you notice signs of anxiety, or just feel that something is not quite right with someone that you care about, it's a good idea to reach out to ask the person how they are feeling. You could start with something neutral and supportive like, "It seems like you haven't been quite yourself lately. Is there something going on that you want to talk about?"
Panic attacks may also be caused by substances. Discontinuation or marked reduction in the dose of a substance such as a drug (drug withdrawal), for example an antidepressant (antidepressant discontinuation syndrome), can cause a panic attack. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, "the most commonly reported side effects of smoking marijuana are anxiety and panic attacks. Studies report that about 20% to 30% of recreational users experience such problems after smoking marijuana."
Research is inconsistent as to whether nutritional deficiencies (for example, zinc or magnesium deficiency) may be risk factors for panic disorder. While food additives like aspartame, alone or in combination with food dyes, are suspected to play a role in the development of panic attacks in some people, it has not been confirmed by research so far.
It is important to note that genetic factors can also bestow resilience to anxiety disorders, and the field continues to pursue large-scale genomics studies to identify novel genetic factors that are associated with anxiety disorders in hopes of better understanding biological pathways that: 1) contribute to the development and maintenance of anxiety; and 2) may lead to better treatment for these disorders. Most people are not aware of what specific genetic markers they may have that confer risk for anxiety disorders, so a straightforward way to approximate genetic risk is if an individual has a history of anxiety disorders in their family. While both nature and nurture can be at play with family history, if several people have anxiety disorders it is likely that a genetic vulnerability to anxiety exists in that family.
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.
Most people experience feelings of anxiety before an important event such as a big exam, business presentation or first date. Anxiety disorders, however, are illnesses that cause people to feel frightened, distressed and uneasy for no apparent reason. Left untreated, these disorders can dramatically reduce productivity and significantly diminish an individual's quality of life.
Anxiety disorders respond very well to therapy—and often in a relatively short amount of time. The specific treatment approach depends on the type of anxiety disorder and its severity. But in general, most anxiety disorders are treated with therapy, medication, or some combination of the two. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure therapy are types of behavioral therapy, meaning they focus on behavior rather than on underlying psychological conflicts or issues from the past. They can help with issues such as panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and phobias.
Paula had her next panic attack three weeks later, and since then, they’ve been occurring with increasing frequency. She never knows when or where she’ll suffer an attack, but she’s afraid of having one in public. Consequently, she’s been staying home after work, rather than going out with friends. She also refuses to ride the elevator up to her 12th floor office out of fear of being trapped if she has a panic attack.
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.
Humor and laughter, in addition to being fun and enjoyable, have many health benefits. Laughter can help people cope with stress, reduce anxiety and tension and serve as a coping mechanism. Humor may allow a person to feel in control of a situation and make it seem more manageable. By helping to reduce fear, anger and stress, humor can help minimize the potential harm they can have on the body over time.
The condition of steady, pervasive anxiety is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Yet there are numerous anxiety-related disorders. One is panic disorder—severe episodes of anxiety that occur in response to specific triggers. Another is obsessive-compulsive disorder, marked by persistent intrusive thoughts or compulsions to carry out specific behaviors, such as hand-washing. Post-traumatic stress disorder may develop after exposure to a terrifying event in which severe physical harm occurred or was threatened. Anxiety so frequently co-occurs with depression that the two are thought to be twin faces of one disorder. Like depression, anxiety strikes twice as many adult females as males.
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).
The signs and symptoms of a panic attack develop abruptly and usually reach their peak within 10 minutes. They rarely last more than an hour, with most ending within 20 to 30 minutes. Panic attacks can happen anywhere and at any time. You may have one while you’re in a store shopping, walking down the street, driving in your car, or even sitting on the couch at home.
The first step is to see your doctor to make sure there is no physical problem causing the symptoms. If an anxiety disorder is diagnosed, a mental health professional can work with you on the best treatment. Unfortunately, many people with anxiety disorders don’t seek help. They don’t realize that they have an illness that has effective treatments.
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.
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.
There are things that people with panic disorder can do to assist with their own recovery. Since substances like caffeine, alcohol, and illicit drugs can worsen panic attacks, those things should be avoided. Other tips for managing panic attacks include engaging in aerobic exercise and stress-management techniques like deep breathing and yoga on a regular basis, since these activities have also been found to help decrease panic attacks.
Some people with anxiety disorders might benefit from joining a self-help or support group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Internet chat rooms might also be useful, but any advice received over the internet should be used with caution, as Internet acquaintances have usually never seen each other and what has helped one person is not necessarily what is best for another. You should always check with your doctor before following any treatment advice found on the internet. Talking with a trusted friend or member of the clergy can also provide support, but it is not necessarily a sufficient alternative to care from a doctor or other health professional.