But flashbacks may occur with other types of anxiety as well. Some research, including a 2006 study in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, suggests that some people with social anxiety have PTSD-like flashbacks of experiences that might not seem obviously traumatic, such as being publicly ridiculed. These people may even avoid reminders of the experience—another symptom reminiscent of PTSD.
Although anxiety is often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as a racing heart or knots in your stomach, what differentiates a panic attack from other anxiety symptoms is the intensity and duration of the symptoms. Panic attacks typically reach their peak level of intensity in 10 minutes or less and then begin to subside. Due to the intensity of the symptoms and their tendency to mimic those of heart disease, thyroid problems, breathing disorders, and other illnesses, people with panic disorder often make many visits to emergency rooms or doctors' offices, convinced they have a life-threatening issue.
Demographic factors also impact risk for anxiety disorders. While there is not a strong consensus, research suggests that risk for anxiety disorders decreases over the lifespan with lower risk being demonstrated later in life. Women are significantly more likely to experience anxiety disorders. Another robust biological and sociodemographic risk factor for anxiety disorders is gender, as women are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety. Overall symptom severity has also been shown to be more severe in women compared to men, and women with anxiety disorders typically report a lower quality of life than men. This sex difference in the prevalence and severity of anxiety disorders that puts women at a disadvantage over men is not specific to anxiety disorders, but is also found in depression and other stress-related adverse health outcomes (i.e. obesity and cardiometabolic disease). Basic science and clinical studies suggest that ovarian hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, and their fluctuations may play an important role in this sex difference in anxiety disorder prevalence and severity. While changes in estrogen and progesterone, over the month as well as over the lifetime, are linked to change in anxiety symptom severity and have been shown to impact systems implicated in the etiology of anxiety disorders (i.e. the stress axis), it still remains unclear how these hormones and their fluctuations increase women's vulnerability to anxiety.
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.
Panic attacks can occur unexpectedly during a calm state or in an anxious state. Although panic attacks are a defining characteristic of panic disorder, it is not uncommon for individuals to experience panic attacks in the context of other psychological disorders. For example, someone with social anxiety disorder might have a panic attack before giving a talk at a conference and someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder might have a panic attack when prevented from engaging in a ritual or compulsion.
Benzodiazepines are often used to provide short-term relief of panic symptoms. Clonazepam (Klonopin) and lorazepam (Ativan) are examples of this group of medications. Although another benzodiazepine, alprazolam (Xanax), is often used to treat panic attacks, the short period of time that it works can cause the panic sufferer to have to take it multiple times each day. Benzodiazepines tend to be effective in decreasing panic attacks by up to 70%-75% almost immediately; however, this class of medications has a strong addiction potential and should be used with caution. Additional drawbacks include sedation, memory loss, and after several weeks, tolerance to their effects and withdrawal symptoms may occur.
A person with panic disorder experiences sudden and repeated panic attacks—episodes of intense fear and discomfort that reach a peak within a few minutes—during which time the individual experiences physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, breathlessness, vertigo, or abdominal distress, sometimes accompanied by the fear of dying or of going insane. These symptoms may seem similar to those of a heart attack or other life-threatening medical conditions. Panic disorder is often diagnosed after medical tests or emergency room visits have ruled out other serious illnesses.
A phobia is an unrealistic or exaggerated fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that in reality presents little to no danger. Common phobias include fear of animals (such as snakes and spiders), fear of flying, and fear of heights. In the case of a severe phobia, you might go to extreme lengths to avoid the thing you fear. Unfortunately, avoidance only strengthens the phobia.
Psychologically, people who develop panic attacks or another anxiety disorder are more likely to have a history of what is called anxiety sensitivity. Anxiety sensitivity is the tendency for a person to fear that anxiety-related bodily sensations (like brief chest pain or stomach upset) have dire personal consequences (for example, believing that it automatically means their heart will stop or they will throw up, respectively). From a social standpoint, a risk factor for developing panic disorder as an adolescent or adult is a history of being physically or sexually abused as a child. This is even more the case for panic disorder when compared to other anxiety disorders. Often, the first attacks are triggered by physical illnesses, another major life stress, or perhaps medications that increase activity in the part of the brain involved in fear reactions.
If you, or someone you know, has symptoms of anxiety disorder, visit a clinician, who can help determine whether the symptoms are due to an anxiety disorder, medical condition or both. Frequently, the next step in getting treatment for an anxiety disorder is referral to a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or counselor.
When used in the appropriate person with close monitoring, medications can be quite effective as part of treatment for panic disorder. However, as anything that is ingested carries a risk of side effects, it is important for the individual who has panic attacks to work closely with the prescribing health care professional to decide whether treatment with medications is an appropriate intervention and, if so, which medication should be administered. The person being treated should be closely monitored for the possibility of side effects that can vary from minor to severe, and in some cases, even be life-threatening. Due to the possible risks to the fetus of a mother being treated for panic attacks with medication, psychotherapy should be the first treatment tried when possible during pregnancy and the risk of medication treatment should be weighed against the risk of continued panic attacks in regard to the impact of a developing fetus.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
How does cognitive behavioral therapy work? Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term talking therapy where a professional counselor or therapist works with an individual to help them find new ways to approach difficult challenges, including stress, fear, and relationship issues. It is a person-centered and time-limited technique. Read now
Panic disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress. These sensations often mimic symptoms of a heart attack or other life-threatening medical conditions. As a result, the diagnosis of panic disorder is frequently not made until extensive and costly medical procedures fail to provide a correct diagnosis or relief.
Panic disorder sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some family members have it while others don’t. Researchers have found that several parts of the brain, as well as biological processes, play a key role in fear and anxiety. Some researchers think that people with panic disorder misinterpret harmless bodily sensations as threats. By learning more about how the brain and body functions in people with panic disorder, scientists may be able to create better treatments. Researchers are also looking for ways in which stress and environmental factors may play a role.
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.
A variety of medical and mental health professionals are qualified to assess and treat panic disorders. From purely medical professionals like primary care doctors, emergency room physicians to practitioners with mental health training like psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, a variety of health care providers may be involved in the care of panic disorder sufferers. Some practitioners will administer a self-test of screening questions to people whom they suspect may be suffering from panic disorder. In addition to looking for symptoms of repeated panic attacks using what is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), asking detailed questions about the sufferer's history and conducting a mental-status examination, mental health professionals will explore the possibility that the individual's symptoms are caused by another emotional illness instead of or in addition to the diagnosis of panic disorder. For example, people with an addiction often experience panic attacks, but those symptom characteristics generally only occur when the person is either intoxicated or withdrawing from the substance. Someone who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have panic attacks when reminded of trauma they experienced and in a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks may be triggered by their being unable to perform a compulsive behavior. The practitioner will also likely ensure that a physical examination and any other appropriate medical tests have been done recently to explore whether there is any medical problem that could be contributing to the occurrence of panic attacks. That is particularly important since many medical conditions may have panic attacks as a symptom and therefore require that the underlying medical condition be treated in order to alleviate the associated anxiety. Examples of that include the need for treatment with antibiotics for infections like Lyme disease or vitamin supplements to address certain forms of anemia.
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.