At some point in our lives, most of us will experience a panic attack in response to an actual danger or acute stress. But when panic attacks occur or recur for no reason and in the absence of danger or extreme stress, or when the fear of experiencing another attack is so strong that you change your behavior by avoiding certain places or people, you may have panic disorder.
Yes, panic attacks are real and potentially quite emotionally disabling. Fortunately, they can be controlled with specific treatments. Because of the disturbing physical signs and symptoms that accompany panic attacks, they may be mistaken for heart attacks or some other life-threatening medical problem. In fact, up to 25% of people who visit emergency rooms because of chest pain are actually experiencing panic. This can lead to people with this symptom often undergoing extensive medical testing to rule out physical conditions. Sadly, sometimes more than 90% of these individuals are not appropriately diagnosed as suffering from panic.
Heredity, other biological factors, stressful life events, and thinking in a way that exaggerates relatively normal bodily reactions are all believed to play a role in the onset of panic disorder. Some research suggests panic attacks occur when a “suffocation alarm mechanism” in the brain is activated, falsely reporting that death is imminent. The exact cause or causes of panic disorder are unknown and are the subject of intense scientific investigation.
Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can be beneficial in some situations. It can alert us to dangers and help us prepare and pay attention. Anxiety disorders differ from normal feelings of nervousness or anxiousness, and involve excessive fear or anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common of mental disorders and affect nearly 30 percent of adults at some point in their lives. . But anxiety disorders are treatable and a number of effective treatments are available. Treatment helps most people lead normal productive lives.
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.
Some medical conditions, like thyroid abnormalities and anemia, as well as certain medications, can produce severe anxiety. Examples of such medications include stimulants like methylphenidate (Ritalin) or amphetamine salts (Adderall), diabetes medications like metformin (Glucophage) and insulin, antimalarial medications like quinine, as well as corticosteroid withdrawal, such as withdrawal from dexamethasone (Decadron). As individuals with panic disorder seem to be at higher risk of having a heart valve abnormality called mitral valve prolapse (MVP), this possibility should be investigated by a doctor since MVP may dictate the need for special precautions when the individual is being treated for any dental problem. While the development of panic attacks has been attributed to the use of food additives like aspartame, alone or in combination with food dyes, more research is needed to better understand the role such substances may have on this disorder.
Since anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions rather than a single disorder, they can look very different from person to person. One individual may suffer from intense anxiety attacks that strike without warning, while another gets panicky at the thought of mingling at a party. Someone else may struggle with a disabling fear of driving, or uncontrollable, intrusive thoughts. Yet another may live in a constant state of tension, worrying about anything and everything. But despite their different forms, all anxiety disorders illicit an intense fear or anxiety out of proportion to the situation at hand.
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.