In order to manage threatening situations, humans have evolved to experience a "fight or flight" response. As part of this response, when humans are confronted with a dangerous situation, their body mobilizes by sending blood away from their extremities (e.g. hands and feet) and into the major muscles, producing adrenaline, and increasing heart rate so that we are better equipped to fight off danger.
People will often experience panic attacks as a direct result of exposure to an object/situation that they have a phobia for. Panic attacks may also become situationally-bound when certain situations are associated with panic due to previously experiencing an attack in that particular situation. People may also have a cognitive or behavioral predisposition to having panic attacks in certain situations.
Antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are commonly used as first-line treatments for anxiety. Less-commonly used — but effective — treatments for anxiety disorders are older classes of antidepressants, such as tricyclic antidepressants and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).
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.’
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.
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.”
Behaving in an apprehensive manner produces the physiological, psychological, and emotional state of anxiety. When we behave apprehensively (worried, fretful, concerned, afraid), the body activates the stress response, which secretes stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots in the body to bring about specific changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with danger. The stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response because of how it equips the body to either fight with or flee from danger.
Shortness of breath is a common symptom of panic attacks that can make you feel frantic and out of control. Acknowledge that your shortness of breath is a symptom of a panic attack and that this is only temporary. Then begin by taking a deep breath in for a total of four seconds, hold for a second, and release it for a total of four seconds. Keep repeating this pattern until your breathing becomes controlled and steady. Focusing on the count of four not only will prevent you from hyperventilating, but it can also help to stop other symptoms in their tracks.
Anyone can learn how to stop and prevent anxiety attacks. It’s a matter of learning more about them and knowing how to control and prevent them. Most people struggle with problematic anxiety attacks because they don’t understand them, and therefore, fear them…which is a common catalyst into Panic Attack Disorder. The more you know, the better off you’ll be.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by unwanted thoughts or behaviors that seem impossible to stop or control. If you have OCD, you may be troubled by obsessions, such as a recurring worry that you forgot to turn off the oven or that you might hurt someone. You may also suffer from uncontrollable compulsions, such as washing your hands over and over.
Many people use the terms anxiety attack and panic attack interchangeable, but in reality, they represent two different experiences. The DSM-5 uses the term panic attack to describe the hallmark features of panic disorder or panic attacks that occur as a result of another mental disorder. To be considered a panic attack, four or more of the symptoms outlined in the DSM-5 must be present.
Experiencing a chronic medical condition or severe or frequent illness can also increase risk for anxiety disorders, as well as dealing with significant illness of a family member or loved one. Given that several medical conditions have been linked to significant anxiety, in some cases a physician may perform medical tests to rule out an underlying medical condition. For instance, thyroid disease is often characterized by experiencing significant symptoms of anxiety. Menopause, heart disease, and diabetes have also been linked to anxiety symptoms. Additionally, drug abuse or withdrawal for many substances is characterized by acute anxiety, and chronic substance abuse can increase risk for developing an anxiety disorder. Anxiety can also be a side effect of certain medications. Experiencing significant sleep disturbances, such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, may also be a risk factor for developing an anxiety disorder.
With panic attacks, we might show them a diagram and explain the fight-or-flight response; their mind or body is trying to help them. If you’ve had a panic attack that came out of the blue, you might become afraid of lightheadedness and avoid activities that spur adrenaline. So we might hyperventilate for a minute in a controlled way to get to the point where they’re not afraid of their own bodily sensation. We work on internal avoidance of those cues that become scary, and desensitize them.
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in The Concept of Anxiety (1844), described anxiety or dread associated with the "dizziness of freedom" and suggested the possibility for positive resolution of anxiety through the self-conscious exercise of responsibility and choosing. In Art and Artist (1932), the psychologist Otto Rank wrote that the psychological trauma of birth was the pre-eminent human symbol of existential anxiety and encompasses the creative person's simultaneous fear of – and desire for – separation, individuation, and differentiation.
The feared object/situation is avoided or endured with intense anxiety or distress. The avoidance, anticipation of, or distress of the phobic object/situation must cause significant distress or interferes with the individual's daily life, occupational, academic, or social functioning to meet diagnosis. The symptoms cannot be better accounted for by another mental disorder or be caused by substances, medications, or medical illness.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is considered to be the gold standard of treatment, especially for panic disorder. CBT focuses on educating clients about their disorders, identifying and changing maladaptive thoughts and fears, learning relaxation and other coping strategies, and helping clients face their fears. Research has shown that CBT for panic disorder is also effective when there are other comorbid disorders present as well and that the key component that makes CBT effective is the exposure ("facing your fears") module (Hofmann, 2011).
Panic attacks and panic disorder are treatable once the underlying cause of is identified. “Usually medical conditions and other factors (substance use or withdrawal from substances) are ruled out before making the diagnosis,” says Flo Leighton, psychiatric nurse practitioner, and therapist with Union Square Practice in Manhattan. Getting to the root cause typically takes a couple of sessions, says Leighton. Here are some options that may be recommended to you :
This may sound counter-intuitive but trying to accept one's emotional experience can be very helpful during panic attacks. Remind yourself that anxiety is like a wave, what goes up must come down. Fighting against the experience engages the "fear of fear" cycle that can make you feel even worse. If you notice panic symptoms creeping up, label your experience and you remind yourself, "I will be okay. This will pass in time." Accepting your experience, rather than fighting against it, will likely help your panic symptoms reduce more quickly and will feel easier along the way.
It is important to note that genetic factors can also bestow resilience to anxiety disorders, and the field continues to pursue large-scale genomics studies to identify novel genetic factors that are associated with anxiety disorders in hopes of better understanding biological pathways that: 1) contribute to the development and maintenance of anxiety; and 2) may lead to better treatment for these disorders. Most people are not aware of what specific genetic markers they may have that confer risk for anxiety disorders, so a straightforward way to approximate genetic risk is if an individual has a history of anxiety disorders in their family. While both nature and nurture can be at play with family history, if several people have anxiety disorders it is likely that a genetic vulnerability to anxiety exists in that family.
We all experience anxiety. For example, speaking in front of a group can make us anxious, but that anxiety also motivates us to prepare and practice. Driving in heavy traffic is another common source of anxiety, but it helps keep us alert and cautious to avoid accidents. However, when feelings of intense fear and distress become overwhelming and prevent us from doing everyday activities, an anxiety disorder may be the cause.
A collection of activities focused in which an individual consciously produces the relaxation response in their body. This response consists of slower breathing, resulting in lower blood pressure and overall feeling of well-being. These activities include: progressive relaxation, guided imagery, biofeedback, and self-hypnosis and deep-breathing exercises.
Additionally, there is some evidence that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction treatment (MBSR), as well as online and computerized treatments are effective in treating panic disorder (Arch et al., 2017). However, the overwhelming majority of research supports the long-term success of CBT for treating panic disorder. More research is needed to explore the extent to which MBSR and ACT work when compared to CBT and other treatments, but preliminary results are positive. In general, empirically-supported treatments that are founded on the basis of research within the psychological and medical fields are recommended for treating panic disorder.
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.
It’s normal to feel anxious when facing a challenging situation, such as a job interview, a tough exam, or a first date. But if your worries and fears are preventing you from living your life the way you’d like to, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. There are many different types of anxiety disorders—as well as many effective treatments and self-help strategies. Once you understand your anxiety disorder, there are steps you can take to reduce your symptoms and regain control of your life.
If you can identify that after a long day of parenting you often feel exhausted and overcome with anxiety by all of the things you need to do, you can work to schedule in "me time" where you can make sure that you have time to relax, exercise or engage in an enjoyable activity that you know helps to reduce your anxiety. Taking care of yourself is important to be able to take care of others.
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.
4) Ice, Ice Baby. For nighttime panic attacks, Kirstie Craine Ruiz keeps about 4 ready-to-go ice packs—2 big and 2 small– in her freezer. When she feels panic coming she puts two small ones in her hand and the 2 large ones on my lower back. “If your heart is really racing and your breathing is bad, I would suggest taking the one on your belly and rubbing it from the middle of your chest down to the bottom of your belly, slowly, and over and over until your heart rate starts to mellow (over your shirt, of course- you don’t want to make yourself freezing!). I feel like when I do this, it literally moves the hyper energy down from my chest and alleviates any chest pain. This method always helps me when it feels like my heart is in my throat. Once you feel as though you can breathe again, place the packs on your lower belly or lower back, and in the palms of your hands. I don’t know if it’s pressure points but holding small smooth ice packs in both hands with palms up, does wonders for my panic, to this day.”
Neural circuitry involving the amygdala (which regulates emotions like anxiety and fear, stimulating the HPA Axis and sympathetic nervous system) and hippocampus (which is implicated in emotional memory along with the amygdala) is thought to underlie anxiety. People who have anxiety tend to show high activity in response to emotional stimuli in the amygdala. Some writers believe that excessive anxiety can lead to an overpotentiation of the limbic system (which includes the amygdala and nucleus accumbens), giving increased future anxiety, but this does not appear to have been proven.
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.
For more information, please visit Mental Health Medications Health Topic webpage. Please note that any information on this website regarding medications is provided for educational purposes only and may be outdated. Diagnosis and treatment decisions should be made in consultation with your doctor. Information about medications changes frequently. Please visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website for the latest information on warnings, patient medication guides, or newly approved medications.