At some point in our lives, most of us will experience a panic attack in response to an actual danger or acute stress. But when panic attacks occur or recur for no reason and in the absence of danger or extreme stress, or when the fear of experiencing another attack is so strong that you change your behavior by avoiding certain places or people, you may have panic disorder.
Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in the United States. The most common type of anxiety disorder are called “simple phobias,” which includes phobias of things like snakes or being in a high place. Up to 9 percent of the population could be diagnosed with this disorder in any given year. Also common are social anxiety disorder (social phobia, about 7 percent) — being fearful and avoiding social situations — and generalized anxiety disorder (about 3 percent).
There are dozens of drugs that can be prescribed to treat anxiety. Since each person responds to medication differently, there's no one drug that works perfectly for everyone. You may have to work a little with a psychiatrist to find the right medication, or the right combination of medicines, that’s most beneficial to you. The drugs that are used to treat anxiety over a long period of time are antidepressants, which affect serotonin, norepinephrine, and other neurotransmitters in the brain.
Treatment of anxiety focuses on a two-pronged approach for most people, that focuses on using psychotherapy combined with occasional use of anti-anxiety medications on an as-needed basis. Most types of anxiety can be successfully treated with psychotherapy alone — cognitive-behavioral and behavioral techniques have been shown to be very effective. Anti-anxiety medications tend to be fast-acting and have a short-life, meaning they leave a person’s system fairly quickly (compared to other psychiatric medications, which can take weeks or even months to completely leave).
An anxiety attack can be described as a sudden attack of fear, terror, or feelings of impending doom that strike without warning and for no apparent reason. This strong sensation or feeling can also be accompanied by a number of other symptoms, including pounding heart, rapid heart rate, sweating, lightheadedness, nausea, hot or cold flashes, chest pain, hands and feet may feel numb, tingly skin sensations, burning skin sensations, irrational thoughts, fear of losing control, and a number of other symptoms. (While other symptoms often do accompany anxiety attacks, they don’t necessarily have to.)
Antidepressants are used to treat depression, but they can also be helpful for treating anxiety disorders. They may help improve the way your brain uses certain chemicals that control mood or stress. You may need to try several different antidepressant medicines before finding the one that improves your symptoms and has manageable side effects. A medication that has helped you or a close family member in the past will often be considered.
Yes, anxiety attacks and their signs and symptoms can feel awful, intense, and threatening. But they aren’t harmful. They pass when the anxiety attack subsides. Getting the right information, help, and support is the best way to treat anxiety attacks and their signs and symptoms. We provide more detailed information in the Recovery Support area of our website.
It is important to note that many people may experience a panic attack once, or even a few times during their lives and may never develop an anxiety disorder. “Anxiety attacks” that are correlated to specific real dangers are not usually a problem. In fact, this type of anxiety is normal. Since the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks may mimic many other medical and psychological disorders, it is important to review your symptoms with your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.
The degree of accompanying stress response and its physiological, psychological, and emotional changes are directly proportional to the degree of anxiety. For example, if you are only slightly concerned, such as being slightly nervous about meeting someone new, the body produces a small degree stress response. The small degree stress response can be so slight that you don’t even notice it.
Your heart beats fast, and your breathing speeds up. Your chest may feel tight, and you might start to sweat. If you've ever felt it, you know that anxiety is just as much a physical state as a mental state. That's because there's a very strong biological chain reaction that occurs when we encounter a stressful event or begin to worry about potential stressors or dangers in the future. Other physical symptoms include sweating, headaches, and insomnia. Psychological symptoms may include feeling restless or irritable, feeling tense, having a feeling of dread, or experiencing ruminative or obsessive thoughts.
Genetics and family history (e.g., parental anxiety) may predispose an individual for an increased risk of an anxiety disorder, but generally external stimuli will trigger its onset or exacerbation.[57] Genetic differences account for about 43% of variance in panic disorder and 28% in generalized anxiety disorder.[58] Although single genes are neither necessary nor sufficient for anxiety by themselves, several gene polymorphisms have been found to correlate with anxiety: PLXNA2, SERT, CRH, COMT and BDNF.[59][60][61] Several of these genes influence neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and norepinephrine) and hormones (such as cortisol) which are implicated in anxiety. The epigenetic signature of at least one of these genes BDNF has also been associated with anxiety and specific patterns of neural activity.[62]
With regard to environmental factors within the family, parenting behavior can also impact risk for anxiety disorders. Parents who demonstrate high levels of control (versus granting the child autonomy) while interacting with their children has been associated with development of anxiety disorders. Parental modeling of anxious behaviors and parental rejection of the child has also been shown to potentially relate to greater risk for anxiety. Experiencing stressful life events or chronic stress is also related to the development of anxiety disorders. Stressful life events in childhood, including experiencing adversity, sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, or parental loss or separation may increase risk for experiencing an anxiety disorder later in life. Having recently experienced a traumatic event or very stressful event can be a risk factor for the development of anxiety across different age groups. Consistent with the notion of chronic life stress resulting in increased anxiety risk, having lower access to socioeconomic resources or being a member of a minority group has also been suggested to relate to greater risk.
Panic attacks, a hallmark of panic disorder, are sudden and repeated bouts of overwhelming fear. These attacks, which often begin in adolescence or early adulthood, are much more intense than normal feelings of anxiety or stress. They usually pass after a few minutes and typically last no longer than an hour, but can continue to recur throughout a day.
Although beta-blockers are most often used to treat high blood pressure, they can also be used to help relieve the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat, shaking, trembling, and blushing. These medications, when taken for a short period of time, can help people keep physical symptoms under control. They can also be used “as needed” to reduce acute anxiety, including as a preventive intervention for some predictable forms of performance anxieties.
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