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.
These physiological responses can actually help us to survive. However, sometimes we experience these physiological responses, like an increased heartbeat, that are not in the presence of danger at all, but something else entirely. In these cases, our bodies can misinterpret these physiological signals as being indicators of danger or a "true threat." For example, people may experience learned anxiety due to previous associations between elevated heart rate and panic attacks and may misinterpret bodily sensations as signs of imminent death or loss of control. In this way, one may start to fear these physiological responses, which is what we call "fear of fear" (Craske & Barlow, 2007). "Fear of fear" maintains or perpetuates panic attacks and panic symptoms, which becomes a vicious cycle. In other words, you experience an increased heart rate, which you interpret as negative, which makes you feel anxious, which further makes your heart rate increase and it often spirals from there. These associations may almost happen automatically, even without conscious thought, but this is what is likely going on behind the scenes.
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).
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.
A phobia is an unrealistic or exaggerated fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that in reality presents little to no danger. Common phobias include fear of animals (such as snakes and spiders), fear of flying, and fear of heights. In the case of a severe phobia, you might go to extreme lengths to avoid the thing you fear. Unfortunately, avoidance only strengthens the phobia.
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.
While obsessive-compulsive disorder is not officially classified by the American Psychological Association as an anxiety disorder, it shares many traits with common anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder. In both conditions, you may know that your thoughts are irrational, but you feel unable to stop thinking them. Often, but not always, these thoughts may concern cleanliness, sex, or religion.
It's important to note that everyone feels anxiety to some degree regularly throughout their life - fear and anxiety are adaptive and helpful emotions that can function to help us notice danger or threat, keep us safe, and help us adapt to the environment. Anxiety disorders represent states when fear or anxiety becomes severe or extreme, to the extent that it causes an individual significant distress, or impairs their ability to function in important facets of life such as work, school, or relationships. It is also important that risk factors don't at all imply that anxiety is anyone's fault; anxiety disorders are a very common difficulty that people experience. In this section, we will review risk factors for anxiety disorders. There are many potential risk factors for anxiety disorders, and most people likely experience multiple different combinations of risk factors, such as neurobiological factors, genetic markers, environmental factors, and life experiences. However, we do not yet fully understand what causes some people to have anxiety disorders.
Paula had her first panic attack six months ago. She was in her office preparing for an important work presentation when, suddenly, she felt an intense wave of fear. Then the room started spinning and she felt like she was going to throw up. Her whole body was shaking, she couldn’t catch her breath, and her heart was pounding out of her chest. She gripped her desk until the episode passed, but it left her deeply shaken.
The prognosis for people who suffer a panic attack is overall, good. Some people have a single attack and are never bothered again. Yet, two-thirds of people experiencing a panic attack go on to be diagnosed with panic disorder. Also, half of those who go through a panic attack might develop clinical depression within the following year, if not treated promptly. Occasionally, a person will, after a long evaluation, be diagnosed with a medical condition that causes panic symptoms.
Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to help with treating panic disorder and agoraphobia. According to a study published in December 2013 in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, its effects lasted as long as two years after the initial treatment. And a study published in August 2017 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology suggested that it may be superior to traditional psychotherapy in the treatment of this condition.
Panic disorder is diagnosed as occurring with or without agoraphobia. Agoraphobia involves a fear of having one of these intense panic attacks in a place or situation where it would be very difficult or embarrassing to escape. Often times, the fear associated with agoraphobia can lead to many avoidance behaviors. By limiting one’s ability to be in certain situations, people with agoraphobia often experience feelings of loneliness as well as an overall diminished quality of life.
Once the diagnosis of panic attack is made, however, the person may be surprised that no medicines are prescribed. Before medications are started, the person requires further evaluation by a mental-health professional to check for the presence of other mental-health disorders. These may include anxiety disorders, depression, or panic disorder (a different diagnosis than panic attack).
In the central nervous system (CNS), the major mediators of the symptoms of anxiety disorders appear to be norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Other neurotransmitters and peptides, such as corticotropin-releasing factor, may be involved. Peripherally, the autonomic nervous system, especially the sympathetic nervous system, mediates many of the symptoms. Increased flow in the right parahippocampal region and reduced serotonin type 1A receptor binding in the anterior and posterior cingulate and raphe of patients are the diagnostic factors for prevalence of anxiety disorder.
Prevention is more effective than treatment for panic attacks. Prevention involves stress management methods such as meditation and mindfulness to reduce your stress so that it doesn’t accumulate and eventually erupt into a panic attack. Prevention is not about stopping a panic attack just before it happens. The best you can do just before a panic attack is manage it.
Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.
If you have anxiety that’s severe enough to interfere with your ability to function, medication may help relieve some anxiety symptoms. However, anxiety medications can be habit forming and cause unwanted or even dangerous side effects, so be sure to research your options carefully. Many people use anti-anxiety medication when therapy, exercise, or self-help strategies would work just as well or better—minus the side effects and safety concerns. It’s important to weigh the benefits and risks of anxiety medication so you can make an informed decision.
People generally can overcome panic attacks faster if they seek help after the first one or two, says psychologist Cheryl Carmin, PhD, director of clinical psychology training at the Wexner Medical Center and a professor at Ohio State University in Columbus. When you do seek help, your doctor or therapist will ask about your symptoms and the situations in which they arise, and might also recommend additional medical testing to rule out other health concerns.
Anxiety disorders are characterized by a general feature of excessive fear (i.e. emotional response to perceived or real threat) and/or anxiety (i.e. worrying about a future threat) and can have negative behavioral and emotional consequences. Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders are characterized by obsessive, intrusive thoughts (e.g., constantly worrying about staying clean, or about one's body size) that trigger related, compulsive behaviors (e.g. repeated hand-washing, or excessive exercise). These behaviors are performed to alleviate the anxiety associated with the obsessive thoughts. Trauma- and stressor- related anxiety disorders are related to the experience of a trauma (e.g., unexpected death of a loved one, a car accident, or a violent incident) or stressor (e.g., divorce, beginning college, moving).
Panic disorder is thought to have a psychobiological conceptualization (Craske & Barlow, 2007). This does not mean that panic attacks are due to a biological disease. What this does mean is that there are certain biological factors that may be inherited or passed on through genes, and thus may lead some people to be more likely than others to experience panic disorder symptoms. This is likely why panic disorder seems to run in families. In other words, if one family member has panic disorder, the other family members are more likely to experience panic symptoms or panic disorder compared to people without a family history of panic disorder. It is very important to note that just inheriting these vulnerabilities to panic does not make the onset of panic attacks inevitable or unalterable. In fact, it is possible to think and act in ways that prevent panic attacks.
“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.
Many of us may know what it feels like to be nervous before a party, or when meeting new people or making an important phone call. Those with social anxiety disorder have very intense versions of those fears — intense fears of being judged by others that cause them to avoid those kinds of situations. For most people, fears of social situations usually subside once the intimidating event has been faced. But in social anxiety disorder, these feelings are persistent and usually last for at least six months.
These attacks are a symptom of panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder that affects some 2.4 million U.S. adults. The disorder most often begins during the late teens and early adulthood and strikes twice as many American women as men. No one knows what causes panic disorder, though researchers suspect a combination of biological and environmental factors, including family history (panic disorder seems to run in families), stressful life events, drug and alcohol abuse, and thinking patterns that exaggerate normal physical reactions.
Panic disorder is characterized by uncontrollable, recurrent episodes of panic and fear that peak within minutes. Panic attacks are accompanied by physical manifestations, such as heart palpitations, sweating, and dizziness as well as the fear of dying or becoming insane. Worry about having an attack may lead to additional anxiety and avoidance behaviors or to other problems in functioning.
"This tends to make the individual vulnerable to developing an anxiety disorder, rather than cause them to directly inherit one," she says. Environmental factors, she adds, interact with genetic predispositions to trigger the onset of anxiety disorders. A study published in August 2017 in the journal Emotion may offer clues as to how both genes and environment combine to make anxiety take root. (4)