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.
Desperate for help, he reached out to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, which sent him a list of therapists experienced in treating panic attacks and anxiety. “This is how I got better," Sideman says. "I found a therapist who understood what panic disorder was, understood agoraphobia, and knew cognitive behavioral therapy, which I had not known about.” He also started practicing meditation.
For example, a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder may experience a panic attack when their schedule or compulsions are interrupted. Individuals who struggle with specific phobias are also susceptible to panic attacks. A person with an extreme fear of heights (acrophobia) may experience a panic attack in a penthouse apartment. And for someone with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a condition characterized by extreme fear or worry, the unending anxiety can escalate to a panic attack. People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a higher incidence of panic disorder than the general population. Illness or traumatic events increase the chances of panic attacks.
Medication can be used to temporarily control or reduce some of the symptoms of panic disorder. However, it doesn’t treat or resolve the problem. Medication can be useful in severe cases, but it should not be the only treatment pursued. Medication is most effective when combined with other treatments, such as therapy and lifestyle changes, that address the underlying causes of panic disorder.
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.
Exposure therapy for panic disorder with agoraphobia includes exposure to the situations you fear and avoid is also included in treatment. As in exposure therapy for specific phobias, you face the feared situation until the panic begins to go away. Through this experience, you learn that the situation isn’t harmful and that you have control over your emotions.
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.
When we experience an involuntary high degree stress response, the sensations can be so profound that we think we are having a medical emergency, which anxious personalities can react to with more fear. And when we become more afraid, the body is going to produce another stress response, which causes more changes, which we can react to with more fear, and so on.
Only 16, Caroline, had her first panic attack a year ago. Her mother was dropping her off at her summer job at a local school when, without warning, a full-blown panic attack engulfed her. “My heart started racing and my body felt so hot. I started to sweat and shake uncontrollably. My vision became distorted and my body felt limp, like a wet noodle,” she says. For 20 minutes, until the panic attacked passed, Caroline refused to get out of the car. Her mother didn’t know what to do.
People with panic attacks often report a fear of dying or heart attack, flashing vision, faintness or nausea, numbness throughout the body, heavy breathing and hyperventilation, or loss of body control. Some people also suffer from tunnel vision, mostly due to blood flow leaving the head to more critical parts of the body in defense. These feelings may provoke a strong urge to escape or flee the place where the attack began (a consequence of the "fight-or-flight response", in which the hormone causing this response is released in significant amounts). This response floods the body with hormones, particularly epinephrine (adrenaline), which aid it in defending against harm.
Panic attacks can occur unexpectedly during a calm state or in an anxious state. Although panic attacks are a defining characteristic of panic disorder, it is not uncommon for individuals to experience panic attacks in the context of other psychological disorders. For example, someone with social anxiety disorder might have a panic attack before giving a talk at a conference and someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder might have a panic attack when prevented from engaging in a ritual or compulsion.
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.
Your brain focuses on some alleged thread, for instance, a very scary thought that was floating somewhere at your subconscious. Your thalamus – the part of the brain responsible for regulating consciousness, sleep and alertness – transfers that information to your amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions, decision-making and memory – which marks it as “danger” and sends a signal to your sympathetic nervous system, activating the fight-or-flight response.
While panic disorder in adolescents tends to have similar symptoms as in adults, symptoms of this condition in younger children are less likely to include the thought-based or so-called cognitive aspects. Specifically, teenagers are more likely to feel unreal or as if they are functioning in a dream-like state (derealization) or be frightened of going crazy or of dying.
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.
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.
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.