Panic attacks are a symptom of an anxiety disorder and affect a significant number of adult Americans. Other facts about panic include that many people in the United States will have full-blown panic disorder at some time in their lives, usually beginning between 15-19 years of age. Panic attacks occur suddenly and often unexpectedly, are unprovoked, and can be disabling.
Butterflies in your stomach before an important event? Worried about how you will meet a deadline? Nervous about a medical or dental procedure? If so, you are like most people, for whom some worry about major events (like having a child, taking an exam, or buying a house), and/or practical issues (like money or health conditions), is a normal part of life. Similarly, it is not uncommon to have fears about certain things (like spiders, injections, or heights) that cause you to feel some fear, worry, and/or apprehension. For example, many people get startled and feel nervous when they see a snake or a large insect. People can differ in what causes them to feel anxious, but almost everyone experiences some anxiety in the course of their life.
Panic attacks are often confusing for the sufferer. They are usually sudden and are accompanied by extremely intense physical sensations, leaving one to believe they may have a serious medical condition. Because the physical symptoms associated with a panic attack are similar to certain serious medical conditions, it is important to rule out any medical causes.
Post-traumatic stress disorder -- or PTSD -- was considered to be a type of anxiety disorder in earlier versions of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But in 2013, PTSD was reclassified as its own condition. It describes a range of emotional reactions caused by exposure to either death or near-death circumstances (such as fires, floods, earthquakes, shootings, assault, automobile accidents, or wars) or to events that threaten one's own or another person's physical well-being. The traumatic event is re-experienced with fear of feelings of helplessness or horror and may appear in thoughts and dreams. Common behaviors include the following:
Agoraphobia: This is a fear and avoidance of places, events, or situations from which it may be difficult to escape or in which help would not be available if a person becomes trapped. People often misunderstand this condition as a phobia of open spaces and the outdoors, but it is not so simple. A person with agoraphobia may have a fear of leaving home or using elevators and public transport.
Panic attacks cause a variety of distressing symptoms that can be terrifying for the individual experiencing the attack. Some people mistake panic attacks for heart attacks and many believe that they are dying. Others feel a mixture of self-doubt or impending doom. Some can also find the episodes extremely embarrassing and refrain from telling their friends, family, or a mental health professional.
^ Anxiety: management of anxiety (panic disorder, with or without agoraphobia, and generalised anxiety disorder) in adults in primary, secondary and community care. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Clinical Guideline 22. Issue date: April 2007 "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 August 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-21. ISBN 1-84629-400-2
Anxiety disorders respond very well to therapy—and often in a relatively short amount of time. The specific treatment approach depends on the type of anxiety disorder and its severity. But in general, most anxiety disorders are treated with therapy, medication, or some combination of the two. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure therapy are types of behavioral therapy, meaning they focus on behavior rather than on underlying psychological conflicts or issues from the past. They can help with issues such as panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and phobias.
In people with anxiety disorders, the brain circuitry that controls the threat response goes awry. At the heart of the circuit is the amygdala, a structure that flags incoming signals as worrisome and communicates with other parts of the brain to put the body on alert for danger. Early life events, especially traumatic ones, can program the circuitry so that it is oversensitive and sends out alarms too frequently and with only minor provocations. Survival mandates a system for perceiving threats and taking quick, automatic action, but those with anxiety see threats where there are none, perhaps because emotional memories color their perceptions.
Many who have never dealt with this ailment dismiss it as an excuse by those who suffer from it to get out of mundane tasks or work requirements. Much like ADHD or mood disorders, anxiety is not something that can necessarily be seen or proven when you are the sufferer struggling to explain yourself to someone who doubts that your night sweats and inability to turn your brain off in the wee hours of the morning are not something you are making up to take a vacation day. Our life is not a vacation.
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.
Physical symptoms of an anxiety disorder can be easily confused with other medical conditions, like heart disease or hyperthyroidism. Therefore, a doctor will likely perform an evaluation involving a physical examination, an interview and lab tests. After ruling out an underlying physical illness, a doctor may refer a person to a mental health professional for evaluation.
The electrocardiograph in a person with panic attacks often shows tachycardia, but does not usually show any of the changes typically seen in people with heart attacks or angina. However, if significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease are present, a noninvasive evaluation to rule out coronary artery disease (CAD) may sometimes be a good idea.
There are long-term, biological, environmental, and social causes of panic attacks. In 1993, Fava et al. proposed a staging method of understanding the origins of disorders. The first stage in developing a disorder involves predisposing factors, such as genetics, personality, and a lack of wellbeing. Panic disorder often occurs in early adulthood, although it may appear at any age. It occurs more frequently in women and more often in people with above-average intelligence. Various twin studies where one identical twin has an anxiety disorder have reported a 31–88% incidence of the other twin also having an anxiety disorder diagnosis.
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Social anxiety disorder (previously called social phobia): People with social anxiety disorder have a general intense fear of, or anxiety toward, social or performance situations. They worry that actions or behaviors associated with their anxiety will be negatively evaluated by others, leading them to feel embarrassed. This worry often causes people with social anxiety to avoid social situations. Social anxiety disorder can manifest in a range of situations, such as within the workplace or the school environment.