When we’re anxious, the body produces a stress response. The stress response is designed to give us an extra ‘boost’ of awareness and energy when we think we could be in danger. The stress response causes a number of physiological, psychological, and emotional changes in the body that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a perceived threat – to either fight or flee, which is the reason the stress response is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight response.’
It is 3:00 in the morning. I wake up from a dead sleep, sit straight up, and immediately know something is wrong. I am sweating, nauseous, and feel as if someone has dumped a bucket of ice water onto my chest. I feel it spill down my abdomen and through my arms and legs. My chest feels as though a giant’s hand is squeezing it with the intention of taking my life.
Great questions. Unfortunately, there is usually no clear cut answer – and like many mental health disorders – it is likely caused by a combination of genetic, behavioral, and developmental factors. Anatomically speaking, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is most closely related to a disruption in the functional connectivity of the amygdala – the “emotional control center” of the brain – and how it processes feelings of fear and anxiety. Genetics also play a role in Generalized Anxiety Disorder. If you have a family member that also suffers from this disorder, your chances of suffering from it are increased, especially in the presence of a life stressor. Interestingly, long-term substance abuse also increases your chances of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, as the use of benzodiazepines can worsen your anxiety levels, as can excessive alcohol use. Tobacco use and caffeine are also both associated with increased levels of anxiety.
Panic attacks may also be caused by substances. Discontinuation or marked reduction in the dose of a substance such as a drug (drug withdrawal), for example an antidepressant (antidepressant discontinuation syndrome), can cause a panic attack. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, "the most commonly reported side effects of smoking marijuana are anxiety and panic attacks. Studies report that about 20% to 30% of recreational users experience such problems after smoking marijuana."
Have you ever worried about your health? Money? The well-being of your family? Who hasn’t, right? These are common issues we all deal with and worry about from time to time. However, if you find yourself in constant worry over anything and everything in your life, even when there should be no cause for concern, you might be suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. People with this condition often recognize they are “over-worrying” about a lot of issues, but have no control over the worry and associated anxiety. It is constant and can interfere with your ability to relax or sleep well and can cause you to startle easily.
While obsessive-compulsive disorder is not officially classified by the American Psychological Association as an anxiety disorder, it shares many traits with common anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder. In both conditions, you may know that your thoughts are irrational, but you feel unable to stop thinking them. Often, but not always, these thoughts may concern cleanliness, sex, or religion.
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.
You do not need to be officially diagnosed with panic disorder to have an attack. Some people have only one or two panic attacks in their life and don't have panic disorder. Panic attacks are actually much more common than panic disorder. According to one Harvard Medical School survey, about 23 percent of people interviewed experienced at least one panic attack in their lifetime, while only about 3 percent of people experienced panic disorder in their lifetime. (1)
Palpitations are uncomfortable sensations of the heart beating hard, rapidly, or irregularly. Some types of palpitations are benign, while others are more serious. Palpitations are diagnosed by taking the patient history and by performing an EKG or heart monitoring along with blood tests. An electrophysiology study may also be performed. Treatment of palpitations may include lifestyle changes, medication, ablation, or implantation of a pacemaker. The prognosis if palpitations depends on the underlying cause.
Tip Number 4 is new and interesting to me. I was already coming down off of a panic attack as I was reading this and as I decided to try it. Focusing on my peripheral vision did have a noticeable effect on my momentary stress, though it may have been placebo. Then again, whether or not it was placebo is kind of a moot point, as it still helped. I’ll have to remember this trick and try it again in the future.
At some point in our lives, most of us will experience a panic attack in response to an actual danger or acute stress. But when panic attacks occur or recur for no reason and in the absence of danger or extreme stress, or when the fear of experiencing another attack is so strong that you change your behavior by avoiding certain places or people, you may have panic disorder.
There are many highly effective treatment options available for anxiety and anxiety-related disorders. These treatments can be broadly categorized as: 1) Psychotherapy; 2) Medications; and 3) Complementary and Alternative Therapies. Patients diagnosed with anxiety can benefit from one or a combination of these various therapies. Discussions of emerging therapies and types of care providers are also included.
^ Leicht, Gregor; Mulert, Christoph; Eser, Daniela; Sämann, Philipp G.; Ertl, Matthias; Laenger, Anna; Karch, Susanne; Pogarell, Oliver; Meindl, Thomas; Czisch, Michael; Rupprecht, Rainer (2013). "Benzodiazepines Counteract Rostral Anterior Cingulate Cortex Activation Induced by Cholecystokinin-Tetrapeptide in Humans". Biological Psychiatry. 73 (4): 337–44. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.09.004. PMID 23059050.
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).