These attacks are a symptom of panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder that affects some 2.4 million U.S. adults. The disorder most often begins during the late teens and early adulthood and strikes twice as many American women as men. No one knows what causes panic disorder, though researchers suspect a combination of biological and environmental factors, including family history (panic disorder seems to run in families), stressful life events, drug and alcohol abuse, and thinking patterns that exaggerate normal physical reactions.
“One day, without any warning or reason, a feeling of terrible anxiety came crashing down on me. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air, no matter how hard I breathed. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I thought I might die. I was sweating and felt dizzy. I felt like I had no control over these feelings and like I was drowning and couldn’t think straight.
Almost everyone has something they fear – maybe it's spiders, enclosed spaces, or heights. When we encounter these "threats," our hearts might begin to race, or our hands may become sweaty. Many fear-related disorders are treated using exposure therapy. This helps people "unlearn" a threat fear response by breaking the association between the "trigger." Imagination allows patients to immerse themselves with a triggering stimulus in a controlled way, at their own pace, which is why it could be a promising new form of treatment.
Medication can be used to control or lessen symptoms related to panic disorder. It is most effective when combined with other treatments, such as the aforementioned cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy. Medications used to treat panic attacks and panic disorder include antidepressants, though they take several weeks to reach effectiveness. Benzodiazepines such as Ativan and Xanax work quickly. However they are addictive and should only be used for a short time,
When people are confronted with unpleasant and potentially harmful stimuli such as foul odors or tastes, PET-scans show increased bloodflow in the amygdala. In these studies, the participants also reported moderate anxiety. This might indicate that anxiety is a protective mechanism designed to prevent the organism from engaging in potentially harmful behaviors.
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.
In a decision context, unpredictability or uncertainty may trigger emotional responses in anxious individuals that systematically alter decision-making. There are primarily two forms of this anxiety type. The first form refers to a choice in which there are multiple potential outcomes with known or calculable probabilities. The second form refers to the uncertainty and ambiguity related to a decision context in which there are multiple possible outcomes with unknown probabilities.
A number of medical conditions can cause anxiety symptoms. These include an overactive thyroid, hypoglycemia, mitral valve prolapse, anemia, asthma, COPD, inflammatory bowel disease, Parkinson's disease, and dementia among others. Your physician may perform certain tests to rule out these conditions. But it is important to remember that anxiety is more often due to poor coping skills or substance abuse than any medical condition.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors, not external things, like people, situations, and events. According to the National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists the benefit of this therapy is that we can change the way we think to feel and act better even if the situation does not change. CBT focuses on determining the thought and behavior patterns responsible for sustaining or causing the panic attacks. CBT is a time-limited process (treatment goals—and the number of sessions expected to achieve them—are established at the start) that employs a variety of cognitive and behavioral techniques to affect change.
Panic attacks are generally brief, lasting less than 10 minutes, although some of the symptoms may persist for a longer time. People who have had one panic attack are at greater risk for having subsequent panic attacks than those who have never experienced a panic attack. When the attacks occur repeatedly, and there is worry about having more episodes, a person is considered to have a condition known as panic disorder.
Shortness of breath and chest pain are the predominant symptoms. People experiencing a panic attack may incorrectly attribute them to a heart attack and thus seek treatment in an emergency room. Because chest pain and shortness of breath are hallmark symptoms of cardiovascular illnesses, including unstable angina and myocardial infarction (heart attack), a diagnosis of exclusion (ruling out other conditions) must be performed before diagnosing a panic attack. It is especially important to do this for people whose mental health and heart health statuses are unknown. This can be done using an electrocardiogram and mental health assessments.
We have all felt anxiety—the nervousness before a date, test, competition, presentation—but what exactly is it? Anxiety is our body's way of preparing to face a challenge. Our heart pumps more blood and oxygen so we are ready for action. We are alert and perform physical and emotional tasks more efficiently. (See also Test Anxiety for tips on dealing with tests.)
Yes, panic attacks can feel awful, intense, and threatening. But they aren’t harmful and generally pass when the body calms down. And yes, they can range in number, intensity, and frequency with each person experiencing a unique set of panic attack symptoms. But panic attacks and their symptoms can be overcome for good by getting the right information, help, and support. We provide more detailed information in the Recovery Support area of our website.
Anxiety is distinguished from fear, which is an appropriate cognitive and emotional response to a perceived threat. Anxiety is related to the specific behaviors of fight-or-flight responses, defensive behavior or escape. It occurs in situations only perceived as uncontrollable or unavoidable, but not realistically so. David Barlow defines anxiety as "a future-oriented mood state in which one is not ready or prepared to attempt to cope with upcoming negative events," and that it is a distinction between future and present dangers which divides anxiety and fear. Another description of anxiety is agony, dread, terror, or even apprehension. In positive psychology, anxiety is described as the mental state that results from a difficult challenge for which the subject has insufficient coping skills.
Exercise regularly. Exercise is a natural stress buster and anxiety reliever. To achieve the maximum benefit, aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days (broken up into short periods if that’s easier). Rhythmic activities that require moving both your arms and legs are especially effective. Try walking, running, swimming, martial arts, or dancing.
Test anxiety is the uneasiness, apprehension, or nervousness felt by students who have a fear of failing an exam. Students who have test anxiety may experience any of the following: the association of grades with personal worth; fear of embarrassment by a teacher; fear of alienation from parents or friends; time pressures; or feeling a loss of control. Sweating, dizziness, headaches, racing heartbeats, nausea, fidgeting, uncontrollable crying or laughing and drumming on a desk are all common. Because test anxiety hinges on fear of negative evaluation, debate exists as to whether test anxiety is itself a unique anxiety disorder or whether it is a specific type of social phobia. The DSM-IV classifies test anxiety as a type of social phobia.
“Anxiety attack” is not a formal, clinical term, but one that is used by many people to describe all sorts of things, from feeling worried about an upcoming event to intense feelings of terror or fear that would meet the diagnostic criteria for a panic attack. In order to understand what someone means by “anxiety attack,” it is necessary to consider the context in which the symptoms occur.
Post-traumatic stress disorder -- or PTSD -- was considered to be a type of anxiety disorder in earlier versions of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But in 2013, PTSD was reclassified as its own condition. It describes a range of emotional reactions caused by exposure to either death or near-death circumstances (such as fires, floods, earthquakes, shootings, assault, automobile accidents, or wars) or to events that threaten one's own or another person's physical well-being. The traumatic event is re-experienced with fear of feelings of helplessness or horror and may appear in thoughts and dreams. Common behaviors include the following:
With regard to environmental factors within the family, parenting behavior can also impact risk for anxiety disorders. Parents who demonstrate high levels of control (versus granting the child autonomy) while interacting with their children has been associated with development of anxiety disorders. Parental modeling of anxious behaviors and parental rejection of the child has also been shown to potentially relate to greater risk for anxiety. Experiencing stressful life events or chronic stress is also related to the development of anxiety disorders. Stressful life events in childhood, including experiencing adversity, sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, or parental loss or separation may increase risk for experiencing an anxiety disorder later in life. Having recently experienced a traumatic event or very stressful event can be a risk factor for the development of anxiety across different age groups. Consistent with the notion of chronic life stress resulting in increased anxiety risk, having lower access to socioeconomic resources or being a member of a minority group has also been suggested to relate to greater risk.
Panic disorder sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some family members have it while others don’t. Researchers have found that several parts of the brain, as well as biological processes, play a key role in fear and anxiety. Some researchers think that people with panic disorder misinterpret harmless bodily sensations as threats. By learning more about how the brain and body functions in people with panic disorder, scientists may be able to create better treatments. Researchers are also looking for ways in which stress and environmental factors may play a role.
The cognitive effects of anxiety may include thoughts about suspected dangers, such as fear of dying. "You may ... fear that the chest pains are a deadly heart attack or that the shooting pains in your head are the result of a tumor or an aneurysm. You feel an intense fear when you think of dying, or you may think of it more often than normal, or can't get it out of your mind."
Poor coping skills (e.g., rigidity/inflexible problem solving, denial, avoidance, impulsivity, extreme self-expectation, negative thoughts, affective instability, and inability to focus on problems) are associated with anxiety. Anxiety is also linked and perpetuated by the person's own pessimistic outcome expectancy and how they cope with feedback negativity. Temperament (e.g., neuroticism) and attitudes (e.g. pessimism) have been found to be risk factors for anxiety.
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.
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.
How does cognitive behavioral therapy work? Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term talking therapy where a professional counselor or therapist works with an individual to help them find new ways to approach difficult challenges, including stress, fear, and relationship issues. It is a person-centered and time-limited technique. Read now
Panic disorder can greatly impact a person's quality of life, limiting your life, and causing you to miss out on many things, including anything beyond your door. That said, there are many effective treatments and strategies which can help people overcome panic attacks. You can learn to manage the symptoms of panic disorder and regain control over your life!
Separation anxiety disorder: Separation anxiety is often thought of as something that only children deal with; however, adults can also be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder. People who have separation anxiety disorder have fears about being parted from people to whom they are attached. They often worry that some sort of harm or something untoward will happen to their attachment figures while they are separated. This fear leads them to avoid being separated from their attachment figures and to avoid being alone. People with separation anxiety may have nightmares about being separated from attachment figures or experience physical symptoms when separation occurs or is anticipated.