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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.
Anxiety disorders are associated with chronic life stress. Unpredictable, unrelenting, unresolvable stressors chronically stimulate the stress hormone system and cardiovascular system, and lead to states of constant increased activity. Biologically, the body has evolved to deal with imminent and concrete danger in the environment, rather than continuous stressors. Under normal conditions where chronic stress is low, exposure to a sudden threat activates the autonomic nervous system, i.e. increased levels of adrenaline and faster breathing, and racing heart rate. These reactions in turn trigger activation of stress hormones, such as cortisol. One of the effects of these stress hormones is to increase glucose levels in the bloodstream in order to respond to the imminent threat, so that muscles can be activated for the flight or fight response. Another effect of stress hormones is to supress the immune system, since processes such as healing and repair can wait until after the threat subsides. However, in someone with an anxiety disorder, where there is constant activation of these responses to everyday stressors, the stress hormone system loses its ability to control immune function, thus contributing to heightened systemic inflammation that increases risk for cardiovascular and even autoimmune disorders. Neuroscience and clinical research continues to investigate how anxiety disorders increase individual risk for developing physical health co-morbidities in hopes of identifying new treatments that may alleviate suffering from and prevent the development of these whole-body disorders.
If medications are prescribed, several options are available. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SSNRIs), and the benzodiazepine families of medications are considered to be effective treatment of panic disorder. SSRIs include sertraline (Zoloft), fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), and fluvoxamine (Luvox). SSNRIs include duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor). Clinical trials have shown SSRIs reduce the frequency of panic attack up to 75%-85%. SSRIs must be taken three to six weeks before they are effective in reducing panic attacks and are taken once daily.
A person with separation anxiety disorder is excessively fearful or anxious about separation from those with whom he or she is attached. The feeling is beyond what is appropriate for the person’s age, persists (at least four weeks in children and six months in adults) and causes problems functioning. A person with separation anxiety disorder may be persistently worried about losing the person closest to him or her, may be reluctant or refuse to go out or sleep away from home or without that person, or may experience nightmares about separation. Physical symptoms of distress often develop in childhood, but symptoms can carry though adulthood.
Panic attacks are a symptom of an anxiety disorder and affect a significant number of adult Americans. Other facts about panic include that many people in the United States will have full-blown panic disorder at some time in their lives, usually beginning between 15-19 years of age. Panic attacks occur suddenly and often unexpectedly, are unprovoked, and can be disabling.
Although there are not specific causes for panic attacks in adults, teens, or children, like most other emotional symptoms, panic is understood to be the result of a combination of biological vulnerabilities, ways of thinking, and environmental factors like social stressors. According to one theory of panic disorder, the body's normal "alarm system," also described as the body's fight or flight system, the set of mental and physical mechanisms that allows a person to respond to a threat, tends to be triggered when there is no danger. Scientists don't know specifically why this happens or why some people are more susceptible to the problem than others. Panic disorder has been found to run in families, and this may mean that inheritance (genetics) plays a role in determining who will develop the condition. However, many people who have no family history of the disorder develop it. Studies differ as to whether drugs like marijuana or nutritional deficiencies like zinc or magnesium deficiencies may also be risk factors for developing panic disorder.
If you’ve ever experienced a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear then you’re familiar with the feeling of having a panic attack. Your heart pounds, you can’t breathe, and you may even feel like you’re dying or going crazy. Left untreated, panic attacks can lead to panic disorder and other problems. They may even cause you to withdraw from normal activities. But panic attacks can be cured and the sooner you seek help, the better. With the right treatment and self-help, you can reduce or eliminate the symptoms of panic, regain your confidence, and take back control of your life
Yes, anxiety attacks and their signs and symptoms can feel awful, intense, and threatening. But they aren’t harmful. They pass when the anxiety attack subsides. Getting the right information, help, and support is the best way to treat anxiety attacks and their signs and symptoms. We provide more detailed information in the Recovery Support area of our website.
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.
But over time, you may find yourself experiencing more panic attacks, in a variety of circumstances. Most of these will not be entirely unexpected. Most subsequent attacks occur in response to various cues such as entering a crowded area; a traffic jam; or simply worrying about having a panic attack. But there may still be some surprises: for instance, you might have a nocturnal panic attack, which wakes you out of a sound sleep. Or you might find yourself experiencing odd feelings of depersonalization as you kill some time with friends or colleagues.
Anxiety disorders reflect disorders that share a general feature of excessive fear (i.e. emotional response to perceived or real threat) and/or anxiety (i.e. anticipation of future threat) and demonstrate behavioral and functional disturbances as a result. Panic attacks are a feature that can occur in the context of many anxiety disorders and reflect a type of fear response.
Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience spontaneous seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and are very preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack. Panic attacks occur unexpectedly, sometimes even when waking up from sleep. Panic disorder usually begins in adulthood (after age 20), but children can also have panic disorder and many children experience panic-like symptoms (“fearful spells”).
In an anxiety-related disorder, your fear or worry does not go away and can get worse over time. It can influence your life to the extent that it can interfere with daily activities like school, work and/or relationships. Fear, stress, and anxiety are "normal feelings and experiences" but they are completely different than suffering from any of the seven diagnosable disorders plus substance-induced anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and trauma- or stressor-related disorders.
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.
Please Note: In some cases, children, teenagers, and young adults under 25 may experience an increase in suicidal thoughts or behavior when taking antidepressant medications, especially in the first few weeks after starting or when the dose is changed. Because of this, patients of all ages taking antidepressants should be watched closely, especially during the first few weeks of treatment.