People who have repeated, persistent attacks or feel severe anxiety about having another attack are said to have panic disorder. Panic disorder is strikingly different from other types of anxiety disorders in that panic attacks are often sudden and unprovoked. However, panic attacks experienced by those with panic disorder may also be linked to or heightened by certain places or situations, making daily life difficult.
In people with anxiety disorders, the brain circuitry that controls the threat response goes awry. At the heart of the circuit is the amygdala, a structure that flags incoming signals as worrisome and communicates with other parts of the brain to put the body on alert for danger. Early life events, especially traumatic ones, can program the circuitry so that it is oversensitive and sends out alarms too frequently and with only minor provocations. Survival mandates a system for perceiving threats and taking quick, automatic action, but those with anxiety see threats where there are none, perhaps because emotional memories color their perceptions.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is different than having a phobia about something. People with phobias are fearful of something in particular – for example, spiders, heights, or speaking in public. If you have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you have an uneasy feeling about life in general. Often associated with feelings of dread or unease, you are in a state of constant worry over everything. If a friend doesn’t call you back within an hour, you may start to worry you did something wrong and the friend is upset with you. If you are waiting for someone to pick you up and he is a few minutes late – you may start to fear the worst – that he was in an accident, instead of thinking something more minor, like he got stuck in traffic. The feelings are not as intense as those that occur during a panic attack episode; however, the feelings are long-lasting. This results in having anxiety toward your life in general and the inability to relax – what some may consider far more debilitating than a specific phobia to a certain thing or situation, which you could possible avoid. There is no “off” switch. If you are suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you are experiencing a constant state of worry – and you cannot avoid it, because life, in general, is causing you anxiety.
In the midst of a panic attack, it’s inevitable that you’ll feel like you’ve lost control of your body, but muscle relaxation techniques allow you to gain back some of that control. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a simple but effective technique for panic and anxiety disorders. Start by clenching your fist and holding this clench until the count of 10. Once you get to 10, release the clench and let your hand relax completely. Next, try the same technique in your feet and then gradually work your way up your body clenching and relaxing each muscle group: legs, glutes, abdomen, back, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and face.