Palpitations are uncomfortable sensations of the heart beating hard, rapidly, or irregularly. Some types of palpitations are benign, while others are more serious. Palpitations are diagnosed by taking the patient history and by performing an EKG or heart monitoring along with blood tests. An electrophysiology study may also be performed. Treatment of palpitations may include lifestyle changes, medication, ablation, or implantation of a pacemaker. The prognosis if palpitations depends on the underlying cause.
Seek medical follow-up. For those who are diagnosed with panic disorder, depression, or another form of anxiety disorder, the news is encouraging when treatment is received. These disorders are usually well controlled with medications. However, many people suffer the effects of these illnesses for years before coming to a doctor for evaluation. These conditions can be extremely disabling, so follow-up after the initial visit to the doctor is crucial so that diagnosis and treatment can continue.
Mindfulness involves spending time focusing on the present moment and using a nonjudgmental stance (things are not good or bad, they just are). This may sound straightforward but it can be tricky as our mind often wanders. Try to spend some time each day focusing on a single activity for 10 minutes. For example, focus on the experience of breathing: noticing the physical sensations that you have, the sound of your breath, the feeling of your chest rising and falling as you breathe, the feeling of air entering and leaving your lungs, etc. Try your best to keep your mind focused on these sensations. If you notice your mind wandering, gently redirect it back to the exercise. Engaging in these exercises on a regular basis can help you to feel emotionally centered. Check out websites, apps, and books for more information on mindfulness and guided mindfulness exercises.
For example, a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder may experience a panic attack when their schedule or compulsions are interrupted. Individuals who struggle with specific phobias are also susceptible to panic attacks. A person with an extreme fear of heights (acrophobia) may experience a panic attack in a penthouse apartment. And for someone with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a condition characterized by extreme fear or worry, the unending anxiety can escalate to a panic attack. People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a higher incidence of panic disorder than the general population. Illness or traumatic events increase the chances of panic attacks.
A panic attack is a response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The most common symptoms include trembling, dyspnea (shortness of breath), heart palpitations, chest pain (or chest tightness), hot flashes, cold flashes, burning sensations (particularly in the facial or neck area), sweating, nausea, dizziness (or slight vertigo), light-headedness, hyperventilation, paresthesias (tingling sensations), sensations of choking or smothering, difficulty moving, and derealization. These physical symptoms are interpreted with alarm in people prone to panic attacks. This results in increased anxiety and forms a positive feedback loop.
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.
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. Genetic differences account for about 43% of variance in panic disorder and 28% in generalized anxiety disorder. 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. 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.
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.
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.
A panic attack may be a one-time occurrence, although many people experience repeat episodes. Recurrent panic attacks are often triggered by a specific situation, such as crossing a bridge or speaking in public—especially if that situation has caused a panic attack before. Usually, the panic-inducing situation is one in which you feel endangered and unable to escape, triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response.
A panic attack? I thought panic attacks were reserved for women who were overly emotional and struggled with a mood disorder. The picture I had of these women from after-school movies and health class worksheets hadn’t prepared me for the idea that a relatively happy wife, mother, teacher, writer, and friend could be suffering from a panic attack. This had to be wrong.
Agoraphobia is often comorbid with panic disorder — meaning people often suffer from both conditions at the same time. It's an intense fear of not being able to escape whatever place you're in, and can often lead to an avoidance of leaving the house. People with agoraphobia can fear situations where this anxiety might flare up, and typically don't feel comfortable or safe in public, crowded places.
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.
People facing anxiety may withdraw from situations which have provoked anxiety in the past. There are various types of anxiety. Existential anxiety can occur when a person faces angst, an existential crisis, or nihilistic feelings. People can also face mathematical anxiety, somatic anxiety, stage fright, or test anxiety. Social anxiety and stranger anxiety are caused when people are apprehensive around strangers or other people in general. Stress hormones released in an anxious state have an impact on bowel function and can manifest physical symptoms that may contribute to or exacerbate IBS. Anxiety is often experienced by those who have an OCD and is an acute presence in panic disorder. The first step in the management of a person with anxiety symptoms involves evaluating the possible presence of an underlying medical cause, whose recognition is essential in order to decide the correct treatment. Anxiety symptoms may mask an organic disease, or appear associated with or as a result of a medical disorder.
Separation anxiety disorder: Separation anxiety is often thought of as something that only children deal with; however, adults can also be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder. People who have separation anxiety disorder have fears about being parted from people to whom they are attached. They often worry that some sort of harm or something untoward will happen to their attachment figures while they are separated. This fear leads them to avoid being separated from their attachment figures and to avoid being alone. People with separation anxiety may have nightmares about being separated from attachment figures or experience physical symptoms when separation occurs or is anticipated.