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.)
Although the exact causes of panic attacks and panic disorder are unclear, the tendency to have panic attacks runs in families. There also appears to be a connection with major life transitions such as graduating from college and entering the workplace, getting married, or having a baby. Severe stress, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss can also trigger panic attacks.
Once an individual has had a panic attack, for example, while driving, shopping in a crowded store, or riding in an elevator, he or she may develop irrational fears, called phobias, about these situations and begin to avoid them. Eventually, the avoidance and level of nervousness about the possibility of having another attack may reach the point at which the mere idea of engaging in the activities that preceded the first panic attack triggers future panic attacks, resulting in the person with panic disorder potentially being unable to drive or even step out of the house (agoraphobia). Thus, there are two types of panic disorder, panic disorder with or without agoraphobia. Like other mental health conditions, panic disorder can have a serious impact on a person's daily life unless the individual receives effective treatment.
Women are more than two times as likely as men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. (6) It’s not clear why this is the case, but researchers have theorized that it may be due to a combination of social and biological factors. Scientists are still investigating the complex role that sex plays in brain chemistry, but some research suggests that in women, the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for processing potential threats, may be more sensitive to negative stimuli and may hold on to the memory of it longer. (7)
Panic disorder is diagnosed as occurring with or without agoraphobia. Agoraphobia involves a fear of having one of these intense panic attacks in a place or situation where it would be very difficult or embarrassing to escape. Often times, the fear associated with agoraphobia can lead to many avoidance behaviors. By limiting one’s ability to be in certain situations, people with agoraphobia often experience feelings of loneliness as well as an overall diminished quality of life.
Many neurotransmitters are affected when the body is under the increased stress and anxiety that accompany a panic attack. Some include serotonin, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), dopamine, norepinephrine and glutamate. More research into how these neurotransmitters interact with one another during a panic attack is needed to make any solid conclusions, however.
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.
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.
Comorbidity is more common than not with anxiety disorders, meaning that most individuals who experience significant anxiety experience multiple different types of anxiety. Given this co-morbidity, it is not surprising that many risk factors are shared across anxiety disorders, or have the same underlying causes. There is a lot of research identifying risk factors for anxiety disorders, and this research suggests that both nature and nurture are very relevant. It is important to note that no single risk factor is definitive - many people may have a risk factor for a disorder, and not ever develop that disorder. However, it is helpful for research to identify risk factors and for people to be aware of them, as being aware of who might be at risk can potentially help people get support or assistance in order to prevent the development of a disorder.
In Europe about 3% of the population has a panic attack in a given year while in the United States they affect about 11%. They are more common in females than males. They often begin during puberty or early adulthood. Children and older people are less commonly affected. A meta-analysis was conducted on data collected about twin studies and family studies on the link between genes and panic disorder. The researchers also examined the possibility of a link to phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and generalized anxiety disorder. The researchers used a database called MEDLINE to accumulate their data. The results concluded that the aforementioned disorders have a genetic component and are inherited or passed down through genes. For the non-phobias, the likelihood of inheriting is 30%-40% and for the phobias, it was 50%-60%.
People with panic attacks often report a fear of dying or heart attack, flashing vision, faintness or nausea, numbness throughout the body, heavy breathing and hyperventilation, or loss of body control. Some people also suffer from tunnel vision, mostly due to blood flow leaving the head to more critical parts of the body in defense. These feelings may provoke a strong urge to escape or flee the place where the attack began (a consequence of the "fight-or-flight response", in which the hormone causing this response is released in significant amounts). This response floods the body with hormones, particularly epinephrine (adrenaline), which aid it in defending against harm.
Panic disorder is a diagnosis given to people who experience recurrent unexpected panic attacks— that is, the attack appears to occur from out of the blue. The term recurrent refers to the fact that the individual has had more than one unexpected panic attack. In contrast, expected panic attacks occur when there is an obvious cue or trigger, such as a specific phobia or generalized anxiety disorder. In the U.S., roughly 50% of people with panic disorder experience both unexpected and expected panic attacks.
So I can tell you that panic attacks aren't dangerous, but I recognize that this is "easy for me to say". If you're having anxiety attacks, especially if they're a relatively new occurrence for you, you might not be able to believe this right now. That's entirely understandable when you feel that your life is threatened! You don't need to take anything here on faith. Instead, check it all out. Test everything I say against your own experience, as you work your way through this site.
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.
Occasional anxiety is an expected part of life. You might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or before making an important decision. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The symptoms can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships.