Once someone has had a panic attack, he or she may develop irrational fears, called phobias, about the situations they are in during the attacks and begin to avoid them. That, in turn, may reach the point where the mere idea of doing things that preceded the first panic attack triggers terror or dread of future panic attacks, resulting in the individual with panic disorder being unable to drive or even step out of the house. If this occurs, the person is considered to have panic disorder with agoraphobia.
"The fight-or-flight system is hardwired for us humans to manage dangerous situations, and those of us with anxiety have an activated fight-or-flight response when the trigger is not really dangerous," says Beth Salcedo, MD, the medical director of The Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders and board president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
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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.
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.
To activate your parasympathetic nervous system, use this simple meditation technique: focus your gaze on an imaginary point in front of you; relax your focus and use your peripheral vision, as if you are trying to take in everything around you with soft focus. It signals to your brain to relax. The more you practice this technique – the faster it will help you to relax in any situation.
Some types of drugs may work better for specific types of anxiety disorders, so people should work closely with their doctor to identify which medication is best for them. Certain substances such as caffeine, some over-the-counter cold medicines, illicit drugs, and herbal supplements may aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders or interact with prescribed medication. Patients should talk with their doctor, so they can learn which substances are safe and which to avoid.
Without treatment, panic attacks tend to occur repeatedly for months or years. While they typically begin in young adulthood, the symptoms may arise earlier or later in life in some people. Complications, which are symptoms that can develop as a result of continued panic attacks and develop into other mental illnesses, may include specific irrational fears (phobias), especially of leaving home (agoraphobia) and avoidance of social situations. Other possible complications can include depression, work or school problems, suicidal thoughts or actions, financial problems, and alcohol or other substance abuse. For children and adolescents, panic disorder can even interfere with normal development. Panic disorder and other anxiety disorders also predispose sufferers to developing heart or gastrointestinal diseases, high blood pressure or diabetes, having more severe symptoms if they have a respiratory disease, and of dying prematurely.
If the person has a family history of seizures or symptoms that are not typical for panic attack, a neurologist may be asked to evaluate the person. There is some overlap between the symptoms of panic attack and what is known as "partial seizures." Distinguishing between the two is important because the treatment for each is quite different. A neurologist, if consulted, will order an EEG (electroencephalogram) to check for seizure activity in the brain. This is a painless test but does require some time to complete (typically overnight).
As is true for other mood and anxiety disorders, the use of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI's; e.g.., Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft), Benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Lorazepam), and Selective Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRI's; e.g., Cymbalta, Effexor, Pristiq) are common medical treatments for panic disorder. Additionally, D-cycloserine is a medication that is now being explored as a way to enhance effects of CBT (e.g., Hofmann et al., 2013). These medications may have side effects and taking them can lead to tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and dependence, so it is important that you consult with a physician before starting or stopping these medications. There is evidence that taking one of these medications in addition to receiving behavioral therapy (e.g., CBT) can significantly benefit patients with panic disorder, although seeking psychotherapy in itself is largely effective (Arch et al., 2017).
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.
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.