Kirstie Craine Ruiz, 46, has lived with anxiety, panic attacks, and panic disorder for about ten years. For a long time, she had full-blown attacks 2-3 nights a week. “I would usually awake to a racing heart or the feeling of my heart expanding in my chest…like it might explode… From there, I would begin to panic and my heart would go even faster….and my body would shake so hard that it felt like I was having a convulsion. I could barely breathe and was usually pretty sure I was having a heart attack and that I was going to die. Sometimes I’d go the ER and they’d hold me overnight because my heart would be going so fast and they couldn’t get it to go down.”
Often, a combination of psychotherapy and medications produces good results in the treatment of panic disorder. Improvement is usually noticed in about two to three months. Thus, appropriate treatment for panic disorder can prevent panic attacks or at least substantially reduce their severity and frequency, bringing significant relief to 70%-90% of people with the illness. More than 18% of people who are assessed but not treated for this condition tend to relapse in less than two years. As these statistics indicate, access to appropriate mental health care is key to a positive prognosis for people who suffer from panic attacks. Therefore, it is imperative to alleviate the well documented economic and racial disparities that exist in having and using access to care. Combating other social disparities, like educational, employment, housing, and criminal justice, is also seen as being important to improving the prognosis for recovering from panic attacks and other health problems.
Some research suggests that people who have panic disorder might be very sensitive to sensory experiences (such as sunlight, smells and changes in the weather), but there's not enough evidence yet to say for sure. Also it's not clear whether having a high level of sensitivity to these sorts of things is something that might cause you to develop panic disorder, or whether it may be an effect of having it.
Although your gut response might be to leave the stressful situation immediately, don’t. “Let your anxiety level come down,” advises Carmin. Then you can decide if you want to leave or if there's a way to get back to whatever you were doing when the anxiety attack started. Staying in the moment will help you overcome anxiety, but it’s hard to do this at first.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the U.S., affecting more than 18% of the population. They are even more common among children, affecting an estimated 25% of children between the ages of 13 and 18. The most common anxiety disorders are Specific Phobias, affecting 8.7% of the population, and Social Anxiety, affecting 6.8% of the population.
So, if anxiety has so many negative effects, why is it relatively common? Many scientists who study anxiety disorders believe that many of the symptoms of anxiety (e.g., being easily startled, worrying about having enough resources) helped humans survive under harsh and dangerous conditions. For instance, being afraid of a snake and having a "fight or flight" response is most likely a good idea! It can keep you from being injured or even killed. When humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies and couldn't pick up their next meal at a grocery store or drive-through, it was useful to worry about where the next meal, or food for the winter, would come from. Similarly avoiding an area because you know there might be a bear would keep you alive —worry can serve to motivate behaviors that help you survive. But in modern society, these anxiety-related responses often occur in response to events or concerns that are not linked to survival. For example, seeing a bear in the zoo does not put you at any physical risk, and how well-liked you are at work does not impact your health or safety. In short, most experts believe that anxiety works by taking responses that are appropriate when there are real risks to your physical wellbeing (e.g., a predator or a gun), and then activating those responses when there is no imminent physical risk (e.g., when you are safe at home or work).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an example of one type of psychotherapy that can help people with anxiety disorders. It teaches people different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to anxiety-producing and fearful objects and situations. CBT can also help people learn and practice social skills, which is vital for treating social anxiety disorder.