Although anxiety is often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as a racing heart or knots in your stomach, what differentiates a panic attack from other anxiety symptoms is the intensity and duration of the symptoms. Panic attacks typically reach their peak level of intensity in 10 minutes or less and then begin to subside. Due to the intensity of the symptoms and their tendency to mimic those of heart disease, thyroid problems, breathing disorders, and other illnesses, people with panic disorder often make many visits to emergency rooms or doctors' offices, convinced they have a life-threatening issue.
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. These types of disorders can restrict participation in everyday life and/or generate significant distress, for instance, by making it difficult to leave the house without many repetitions of a compulsive behavior (e.g. checking that the doors are locked). Periodically experiencing worry or having a few "idiosyncratic" habits does not constitute an obsessive-compulsive or related disorder. Instead, these disorders are characterized by unusually high levels of worry and related compulsive behaviors, in comparison with a typical range of individuals.
A key component to the prevention of anxiety is awareness. Learning to recognize your anxious thinking patterns when they arise can help you manage and reduce them quickly. Awareness of anxiety begins with trying to identify the cause and/or trigger of anxiety and gaining an understanding of how it affects your mood and behaviors. Is it that your boss recently gave you negative feedback at work and you are worried each day that you are not doing well enough for their standards? Is it that you waited until the last minute to study for a test and are feeling anxious that you will not perform well? Awareness of the source of your anxiety is the first step to finding out the best way to relieve it.
Once someone has had a panic attack, he or she may develop irrational fears, called phobias, about the situations they are in during the attacks and begin to avoid them. That, in turn, may reach the point where the mere idea of doing things that preceded the first panic attack triggers terror or dread of future panic attacks, resulting in the individual with panic disorder being unable to drive or even step out of the house. If this occurs, the person is considered to have panic disorder with agoraphobia.
Panic attacks can occur due to number of disorders including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, drug use disorder, depression, and medical problems. They can either be triggered or occur unexpectedly. Smoking, caffeine, and psychological stress increase the risk of having a panic attack. Before diagnosis, conditions that produce similar symptoms should be ruled out, such as hyperthyroidism, hyperparathyroidism, heart disease, lung disease, and drug use.
This may sound counter-intuitive but trying to accept one's emotional experience can be very helpful during panic attacks. Remind yourself that anxiety is like a wave, what goes up must come down. Fighting against the experience engages the "fear of fear" cycle that can make you feel even worse. If you notice panic symptoms creeping up, label your experience and you remind yourself, "I will be okay. This will pass in time." Accepting your experience, rather than fighting against it, will likely help your panic symptoms reduce more quickly and will feel easier along the way.
People with panic disorder often worry about when the next attack will happen and actively try to prevent future attacks by avoiding places, situations, or behaviors they associate with panic attacks. Worry about panic attacks, and the effort spent trying to avoid attacks, cause significant problems in various areas of the person’s life, including the development of agoraphobia (see below).