A first panic attack is usually unexpected, and comes "out of the blue." It may scare you so much that you start taking steps to protect yourself from future attacks. Maybe you start avoiding places that remind you of your first attack. Maybe you only go out after making sure you have your cell phone, a bottle of water, and other objects you hope will keep you safe. Maybe you try hard to "stop thinking about it." You work hard to keep the panic at bay.
An anxiety or panic attack often comes on suddenly, with symptoms peaking within 10 minutes. For doctors to diagnose a panic attack, they look for at least four of the following signs: sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, a choking sensation, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, fear of losing your mind, fear of dying, feeling hot or cold, numbness or tingling, a racing heart (heart palpitations), and feeling unusually detached from yourself.
As with most behavioral illnesses, the causes of panic attacks are many. Certainly there is evidence that the tendency to have panic attacks can sometimes be inherited. However, there is also evidence that panic may be a learned response and that the attacks can be initiated in otherwise healthy people simply given the right set of circumstances. Research into the causes of panic attacks is ongoing.
If you're having lots of panic attacks at unpredictable times and there doesn't seem to be a particular trigger or cause, you might be given a diagnosis of panic disorder. It's common to experience panic disorder and agoraphobia (a type of phobia) together. People who experience panic disorder may have some periods with few or no panic attacks, but have lots at other times.
Many medical conditions can cause anxiety. This includes conditions that affect the ability to breathe, like COPD and asthma, and the difficulty in breathing that often occurs near death. Conditions that cause abdominal pain or chest pain can cause anxiety and may in some cases be a somatization of anxiety; the same is true for some sexual dysfunctions. Conditions that affect the face or the skin can cause social anxiety especially among adolescents, and developmental disabilities often lead to social anxiety for children as well. Life-threatening conditions like cancer also cause anxiety.
I think I had an anxiety attack the other day, but I’m not sure. I was at the movies and felt scared, like something or someone was going to attack me. I drove home and felt like I was scared of the dark and was having trouble breathing and focusing on driving. After dropping off my bf and driving home, I started crying and hyperventilating, and felt detached from the world, like nothing mattered, and felt like I was going to die. It took me two hours to fall asleep and I had nightmares. The episode was over by morning, but I’m concerned that it will happen again.
Panic attacks may also occur due to short-term stressors. Significant personal loss, including an emotional attachment to a romantic partner, life transitions, and significant life changes may all trigger a panic attack to occur. A person with an anxious temperament, excessive need for reassurance, hypochondriacal fears, overcautious view of the world, and cumulative stress have been correlated with panic attacks. In adolescents, social transitions may also be a cause.
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.
Expected panic attacks are those which occur when you are exposed to one of your triggers. For example, if you have a fear of flying you may have a panic attack when you board a plane. Expected panic attacks are again broken down into two categories: situationally bound (cued) in which a person is anticipating exposure to a particular trigger (as with our flying example), or situationally predisposed, in which a panic attack does not always occur when exposed to the feared situation.
The symptoms of a panic attack may cause the person to feel that their body is failing. The symptoms can be understood as follows. First, there is frequently the sudden onset of fear with little provoking stimulus. This leads to a release of adrenaline (epinephrine) which brings about the fight-or-flight response when the body prepares for strenuous physical activity. This leads to an increased heart rate (tachycardia), rapid breathing (hyperventilation) which may be perceived as shortness of breath (dyspnea), and sweating. Because strenuous activity rarely ensues, the hyperventilation leads to a drop in carbon dioxide levels in the lungs and then in the blood. This leads to shifts in blood pH (respiratory alkalosis or hypocapnia), causing compensatory metabolic acidosis activating chemosensing mechanisms which translate this pH shift into autonomic and respiratory responses. The person him/herself may overlook the hyperventilation, having become preoccupied with the associated somatic symptoms.
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.”
Beta Blockers, also known as beta-adrenergic blocking agents, work by blocking the neurotransmitter epinephrine (adrenaline). Blocking adrenaline slows down and reduces the force of heart muscle contraction resulting in decreased blood pressure. Beta blockers also increase the diameter of blood vessels resulting in increased blood flow. Historically, beta blockers have been prescribed to treat the somatic symptoms of anxiety (heart rate and tremors) but they are not very effective at treating the generalized anxiety, panic attacks or phobias. Lopressor and Inderal are some of the brand names with which you might be familiar.
Anxiety disorders fall into a set of distinct diagnoses, depending upon the symptoms and severity of the anxiety the person experiences. Anxiety disorders share the anticipation of a future threat, but differ in the types of situations or objects that induce fear or avoidance behavior. Different types of anxiety disorder also have different types of unhealthy thoughts associated with them.
While panic disorder in adolescents tends to have similar symptoms as in adults, symptoms of this condition in younger children are less likely to include the thought-based or so-called cognitive aspects. Specifically, teenagers are more likely to feel unreal or as if they are functioning in a dream-like state (derealization) or be frightened of going crazy or of dying.
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A healthy diet is also important to reduce and prevent anxiety. It seems counterintuitive that you can "eat your way to calm" but sustaining a healthy diet can really help you to feel more at ease on a regular basis, despite stressors. Some foods that are particularly helpful for reducing anxiety include foods with omega 3 fatty acids (i.e., salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed) and probiotics. Avoid greasy, sugary, high-fat, and processed foods. Additionally, avoiding caffeine when feeling anxious as well as unhealthy substances (i.e., alcohol) could be beneficial. Drinking alcohol might seem like a good way to calm down, but it can lead to sustained anxious symptoms. Incorporating a healthy diet into your lifestyle is fundamental to preventing and reducing anxiety.
Some people with anxiety disorders might benefit from joining a self-help or support group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Internet chat rooms might also be useful, but any advice received over the internet should be used with caution, as Internet acquaintances have usually never seen each other and what has helped one person is not necessarily what is best for another. You should always check with your doctor before following any treatment advice found on the internet. Talking with a trusted friend or member of the clergy can also provide support, but it is not necessarily a sufficient alternative to care from a doctor or other health professional.