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.
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.
Antidepressants are medications used to treat symptoms of depression but can also used to treat anxiety symptoms as well. In particular, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are the primary class of antidepressant used to treat anxiety. SSRIs commonly used to treat anxiety are escitalopram (Lexapro) and paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva). SNRI medications used to treat anxiety include duloxetine (Cymbalta), venlafaxine (Effexor XR).
Yes, panic attacks are real and potentially quite emotionally disabling. Fortunately, they can be controlled with specific treatments. Because of the disturbing physical signs and symptoms that accompany panic attacks, they may be mistaken for heart attacks or some other life-threatening medical problem. In fact, up to 25% of people who visit emergency rooms because of chest pain are actually experiencing panic. This can lead to people with this symptom often undergoing extensive medical testing to rule out physical conditions. Sadly, sometimes more than 90% of these individuals are not appropriately diagnosed as suffering from panic.
Anxiety can be experienced with long, drawn out daily symptoms that reduce quality of life, known as chronic (or generalized) anxiety, or it can be experienced in short spurts with sporadic, stressful panic attacks, known as acute anxiety. Symptoms of anxiety can range in number, intensity, and frequency, depending on the person. While almost everyone has experienced anxiety at some point in their lives, most do not develop long-term problems with anxiety.
Approximately one-third of people with panic disorder will also develop agoraphobia. People with agoraphobia are afraid that they will have some anxiety symptoms or a full-blown panic attack in a place where it would be very challenging or embarrassing for them to flee. This condition can lead to avoidance behaviors, in which they try to stay away from all places or situations in which they may have a panic attack.
As the result of years of research, there are a variety of treatments available to help people who suffer from panic attacks learn how to control the symptoms. This includes several effective medical treatments, and specific forms of psychotherapy. In terms of medications, specific members of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), the selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SSNRI), and the benzodiazepine families of medications are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for effective treatment of panic disorder. Examples of anti-anxiety medications include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), escitalopram (Lexapro), citalopram (Celexa), vortioxetine (Brintellix), and vilazodone (Viibryd) from the SSRI group, duloxetine (Cymbalta), venlafaxine (Effexor), desvenlafaxine (Pristiq), and levomilnacipran (Fetzima) from the SSNRI group, and clonazepam (Klonopin) and lorazepam (Ativan) from the benzodiazepine group. Although alprazolam (Xanax) is often used to treat panic attacks, its short duration of action can sometimes result in having to take it several times per day. Medications from the beta-blocker family (for example, propranolol [Inderal]) are sometimes used to treat the physical symptoms, like racing heart rate associated with a panic attack. Some individuals who suffer from severe panic attacks may benefit from treatment with gabapentin (Neurontin), which was initially found to treat seizures, or benefit from a neuroleptic medication like risperidone (Risperdal), olanzapine (Zyprexa), quetiapine (Seroquel), aripiprazole (Abilify), paliperidone (Invega), asenapine (Saphris), iloperidone (Fanapt), or lurasidone (Latuda).
Cognitive therapy and exposure therapy are two CBT methods that are often used, together or by themselves, to treat social anxiety disorder. Cognitive therapy focuses on identifying, challenging, and then neutralizing unhelpful or distorted thoughts underlying anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy focuses on confronting the fears underlying an anxiety disorder to help people engage in activities they have been avoiding. Exposure therapy is sometimes used along with relaxation exercises and/or imagery.