At least 6 million Americans suffer from panic attacks and panic disorder both conditions classified as anxiety disorders. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), about 2-3% of Americans experience panic disorder in a given year and it is twice as common in women as in men. Panic disorder typically affects individuals when they’re in their 20s but is also seen in young children, adolescents, and older adults.
Psychologically, people who develop panic attacks or another anxiety disorder are more likely to have a history of what is called anxiety sensitivity. Anxiety sensitivity is the tendency for a person to fear that anxiety-related bodily sensations (like brief chest pain or stomach upset) have dire personal consequences (for example, believing that it automatically means their heart will stop or they will throw up, respectively). From a social standpoint, a risk factor for developing panic disorder as an adolescent or adult is a history of being physically or sexually abused as a child. This is even more the case for panic disorder when compared to other anxiety disorders. Often, the first attacks are triggered by physical illnesses, another major life stress, or perhaps medications that increase activity in the part of the brain involved in fear reactions.
A panic attack is an abrupt surge of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes, and during which time a variety of psychological and physical symptoms occur. These symptoms include rapid heart rate, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, hot flashes, and lightheadedness—as well as a sense of impending doom, chills, nausea, abdominal pain, chest pain, headache, and numbness or tingling.
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.
It is not clear what causes panic disorder. In many people who have the biological vulnerability to panic attacks, they may develop in association with major life changes (such as getting married, having a child, starting a first job, etc.) and major lifestyle stressors. There is also some evidence that suggests that the tendency to develop panic disorder may run in families. People who suffer from panic disorder are also more likely than others to suffer from depression, attempt suicide, or to abuse alcohol or drugs.
The causes of anxiety attacks are not well understood. Some traumatic life events can set off anxiety attacks if the person is prone to depression or anxiety disorders. Also, medical conditions and some medications may trigger anxiety attacks. Many believe anxiety attacks run in families with a genetic predisposition. In other words, if your mom and her sister had anxiety attacks, it’s likely you will, too.
Genetics and family history (e.g., parental anxiety) may predispose an individual for an increased risk of an anxiety disorder, but generally external stimuli will trigger its onset or exacerbation. Genetic differences account for about 43% of variance in panic disorder and 28% in generalized anxiety disorder. Although single genes are neither necessary nor sufficient for anxiety by themselves, several gene polymorphisms have been found to correlate with anxiety: PLXNA2, SERT, CRH, COMT and BDNF. Several of these genes influence neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and norepinephrine) and hormones (such as cortisol) which are implicated in anxiety. The epigenetic signature of at least one of these genes BDNF has also been associated with anxiety and specific patterns of neural activity.
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.
About 2-3% of Americans experience panic disorder in a given year and it is twice as common in women than in men. Panic disorder can interfere a lot with daily life, causing people to miss work, go to many doctor visits, and avoid situations where they fear they might experience a panic attack. The interference is greatest when people also have agoraphobia, as well as panic disorder.
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.
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).