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.
Over time, many who suffer panic attacks develop an on-going fear of having another attack. This fear can severely hamper daily activities and overall quality of life. Some people refuse to leave their houses or to put themselves in situations that remind them of their previous attacks. Agoraphobia (a fear of being outside of known and safe surroundings) or other mental problems may follow.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by uncontrollable anxious thoughts or behaviors. Individuals with OCD are plagued by persistent, unwelcome thoughts and images or by the urgent need to engage in certain rituals. Some OCD sufferers may only have obsessive thoughts without the related rituals. The disturbing thoughts or images (e.g., fear of germs) are called obsessions, and the rituals performed to try to get rid of them (e.g., hand washing) are called compulsions. For example, people who are obsessed with germs may wash their hands excessively. The individual is not happy to be performing the ritual behaviors but finds this to be the only way to get temporary relief from the obsessive thought.
Dr. John Grohol is the founder, Editor-in-Chief & CEO of Psych Central. He is an author, researcher and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues -- as well as the intersection of technology and human behavior -- since 1992. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member and treasurer of the Society for Participatory Medicine. He writes regularly and extensively on mental health concerns, the intersection of technology and psychology, and advocating for greater acceptance of the importance and value of mental health in today's society. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.
Panic attacks, on the other hand, are short bursts of intense fear often marked by increased heart rate, brief chest pain or shortness of breath. Typically lasting fewer than 30 minutes, they could occur once or repeatedly — sometimes without reason. These episodes can send patients to the emergency room, as they are sometimes mistaken for a heart attack.
Heredity, other biological factors, stressful life events, and thinking in a way that exaggerates relatively normal bodily reactions are all believed to play a role in the onset of panic disorder. Some research suggests panic attacks occur when a “suffocation alarm mechanism” in the brain is activated, falsely reporting that death is imminent. The exact cause or causes of panic disorder are unknown and are the subject of intense scientific investigation.
You may experience one or more panic attacks, yet be otherwise perfectly happy and healthy. Or your panic attacks may occur as part of another disorder, such as panic disorder, social phobia, or depression. Regardless of the cause, panic attacks are treatable. There are strategies you can use to cope with the symptoms as well as effective treatments.
Panic attacks involve sudden feelings of terror that strike without warning. These episodes can occur at any time, even during sleep. People experiencing a panic attack may believe they are having a heart attack or they are dying or going crazy. The fear and terror that a person experiences during a panic attack are not in proportion to the true situation and may be unrelated to what is happening around them. Most people with panic attacks experience several of the following symptoms:
Poverty and low education level tend to be associated with anxiety, but it is unclear if those factors cause or are caused by anxiety. While some statistics suggest that disadvantaged ethnic minorities tend to suffer from internalizing disorders like panic disorder less often than the majority population in the United States, other research shows that may be the result of differences in how ethnic groups interpret and discuss signs and symptoms of intense fright, like panic attacks. Also, panic and other anxiety disorders are thought to persist more for some ethnic minorities in the United States. Difficulties the examiner may have in appropriately recognizing and understanding ethnic differences in symptom expression is also thought to play a role in ethnic differences in the reported frequency of panic and other internalizing disorders.
Anxiety, worry, and stress are all a part of most people’s everyday lives. But simply experiencing anxiety or stress in and of itself does not mean you need to get professional help or that you have an anxiety disorder. In fact, anxiety is an important and sometimes necessary warning signal of a dangerous or difficult situation. Without anxiety, we would have no way of anticipating difficulties ahead and preparing for them.
About 2-3% of Americans experience panic disorder in a given year and it is twice as common in women than in men. Panic disorder can interfere a lot with daily life, causing people to miss work, go to many doctor visits, and avoid situations where they fear they might experience a panic attack. The interference is greatest when people also have agoraphobia, as well as panic disorder.
Medications are also a common form of treatment for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The most common types of medications prescribed to individuals living with this form of anxiety include anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and in some cases, sedatives. Antidepressants are used to treat depression, but have been found effective in the treatment of anxiety as well. They commonly take a couple of weeks to start taking effect and may cause some mild side effects, including headache, nausea, or difficulty sleeping. Most of the side effects are mild and tend to subside within a few weeks. Anti-anxiety medication is also often prescribed to help individuals cope with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. These types of drugs are powerful in their treatment of this type of anxiety; one of the most commonly prescribed types is a drug called buspirone often under the brand nane Buspar.
This publication is in the public domain and may be reproduced or copied without permission from NIMH. Citation of NIMH as a source is appreciated. We encourage you to reproduce it and use it in your efforts to improve public health. However, using government materials inappropriately can raise legal or ethical concerns, so we ask you to use these guidelines:
Behavioral choices can also significantly impact risk, as excessive tobacco or caffeine use can increase anxiety, whereas regular exercise can decrease anxiety. Specific temperament and personality traits also may confer risk of having an anxiety disorder. With regards to temperament, shyness and behavioral inhibition in childhood can increase risk of developing an anxiety disorder later in life. With regard to personality traits, the Five Factor Model of Personality consists of five broad trait domains including Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. An individual higher on trait Neuroticism or low on Conscientiousness is at a higher risk for all anxiety disorders, and an individual low on trait Extraversion is at a higher risk of developing social phobia and agoraphobia. Some more narrow personality traits have also been found to relate to risk for anxiety, including anxiety sensitivity, a negative or hostile attributional style, and self-criticism. Personality disorders have also been shown to relate to increased risk for anxiety disorders.
For more information about our Anxiety Counseling option; our Available Anxiety Therapists; to Book An Appointment with one of our anxiety therapists; common Anxiety Signs and Symptoms; common Anxiety Attack Symptoms; the symptoms of panic attack disorder; anxiety Recovery Support area; information about Anxiety; and our Anxiety 101 section; or click on the appropriate link or graphic below:
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.
I don’t know if I’m having anxiety attacks but every time I face a minor problem in my life, even if it us really stupid, I feel like I want to cry, to scream, and it’s like something is blocking my throat. I can’t control my anger during those moments, so I usually turn off my phone so I don’t say things I don’t mean to my friends or my family when I’m panicking and overthinking about any minor situation.
Shortness of breath and chest pain are the predominant symptoms. People experiencing a panic attack may incorrectly attribute them to a heart attack and thus seek treatment in an emergency room. Because chest pain and shortness of breath are hallmark symptoms of cardiovascular illnesses, including unstable angina and myocardial infarction (heart attack), a diagnosis of exclusion (ruling out other conditions) must be performed before diagnosing a panic attack. It is especially important to do this for people whose mental health and heart health statuses are unknown. This can be done using an electrocardiogram and mental health assessments.
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.