The symptoms of a panic attack may cause the person to feel that their body is failing. The symptoms can be understood as follows. First, there is frequently the sudden onset of fear with little provoking stimulus. This leads to a release of adrenaline (epinephrine) which brings about the fight-or-flight response when the body prepares for strenuous physical activity. This leads to an increased heart rate (tachycardia), rapid breathing (hyperventilation) which may be perceived as shortness of breath (dyspnea), and sweating. Because strenuous activity rarely ensues, the hyperventilation leads to a drop in carbon dioxide levels in the lungs and then in the blood. This leads to shifts in blood pH (respiratory alkalosis or hypocapnia), causing compensatory metabolic acidosis activating chemosensing mechanisms which translate this pH shift into autonomic and respiratory responses. The person him/herself may overlook the hyperventilation, having become preoccupied with the associated somatic symptoms.
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).
In the midst of a panic attack, it’s inevitable that you’ll feel like you’ve lost control of your body, but muscle relaxation techniques allow you to gain back some of that control. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a simple but effective technique for panic and anxiety disorders. Start by clenching your fist and holding this clench until the count of 10. Once you get to 10, release the clench and let your hand relax completely. Next, try the same technique in your feet and then gradually work your way up your body clenching and relaxing each muscle group: legs, glutes, abdomen, back, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and face.
Pick an object that you can see somewhere in front of you and note everything you notice about that object—from its color and size to any patterns it may have, where you might have seen others like it, or what something completely opposite to the object would look like. You can do this in your head or speak your observational aloud to yourself or a friend.
A person with panic disorder experiences sudden and repeated panic attacks—episodes of intense fear and discomfort that reach a peak within a few minutes—during which time the individual experiences physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, breathlessness, vertigo, or abdominal distress, sometimes accompanied by the fear of dying or of going insane. These symptoms may seem similar to those of a heart attack or other life-threatening medical conditions. Panic disorder is often diagnosed after medical tests or emergency room visits have ruled out other serious illnesses.
There are several different anxiety-related disorders. Some symptoms overlap across many of these disorders, and others are more specific to a single disorder. In general, however, all anxiety-related disorders feature worry, nervousness, or fear that is ongoing, excessive, and has negative effects on a person's ability to function. It can be tricky to decide when anxiety is typical or linked to a disorder, which is why diagnoses should be made by licensed professionals, such as psychologists or psychiatrists.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is different than having a phobia about something. People with phobias are fearful of something in particular – for example, spiders, heights, or speaking in public. If you have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you have an uneasy feeling about life in general. Often associated with feelings of dread or unease, you are in a state of constant worry over everything. If a friend doesn’t call you back within an hour, you may start to worry you did something wrong and the friend is upset with you. If you are waiting for someone to pick you up and he is a few minutes late – you may start to fear the worst – that he was in an accident, instead of thinking something more minor, like he got stuck in traffic. The feelings are not as intense as those that occur during a panic attack episode; however, the feelings are long-lasting. This results in having anxiety toward your life in general and the inability to relax – what some may consider far more debilitating than a specific phobia to a certain thing or situation, which you could possible avoid. There is no “off” switch. If you are suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you are experiencing a constant state of worry – and you cannot avoid it, because life, in general, is causing you anxiety.
Panic disorder is characterized by uncontrollable, recurrent episodes of panic and fear that peak within minutes. Panic attacks are accompanied by physical manifestations, such as heart palpitations, sweating, and dizziness as well as the fear of dying or becoming insane. Worry about having an attack may lead to additional anxiety and avoidance behaviors or to other problems in functioning.
In fact, some studies have suggested that people with chronic anxiety disorders have an increased prevalence of CAD—that is, chronic anxiety may be a risk factor for CAD. So doctors should not be too quick to simply write the chest pain off as being “simply” due to anxiety. They should at least entertain the possibility that both disorders may be present and should do an appropriate evaluation.
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.
Although breathing into a paper bag was a common recommendation for short-term treatment of symptoms of an acute panic attack, it has been criticized as inferior to measured breathing, potentially worsening the panic attack and possibly reducing needed blood oxygen. While the paper bag technique increases needed carbon dioxide and so reduces symptoms, it may excessively lower oxygen levels in the blood stream.
Since anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions rather than a single disorder, they can look very different from person to person. One individual may suffer from intense anxiety attacks that strike without warning, while another gets panicky at the thought of mingling at a party. Someone else may struggle with a disabling fear of driving, or uncontrollable, intrusive thoughts. Yet another may live in a constant state of tension, worrying about anything and everything. But despite their different forms, all anxiety disorders illicit an intense fear or anxiety out of proportion to the situation at hand.
No matter what your plan is, having one in place is the most important thing. You can think of your plan as your go-to set of instructions for yourself when you feel a panic attack coming on. One plan might be to take yourself out of your current environment, sit down, and call a friend or family member that can help distract you from your symptoms and help you to calm down. Then you can incorporate the following techniques.
Since panic attacks are caused by overly apprehensive behavior or chronic stress, addressing our overly apprehensive behavior and stress can stop and prevent panic attacks, and eventually, panic disorder. The combination of good self-help information and therapy is the most effective way of addressing overly apprehensive behavior. Accessing good self-help information and applying it is a good way to reduce stress.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the handbook used for diagnosis of mental health disorders, and is widely used by health care professionals around the world. For each disorder, the DSM has a description of symptoms and other criteria to diagnose the disorder. The DSM is important, because it allows different clinicians and/or researchers to use the same language when discussing mental health disorders. The first DSM was published in 1952 and has been updated several times after new research and knowledge became available. In 2013, the most recent version of the DSM, the DSM-5, was released. There are a few important differences with its predecessor DSM-IV regarding anxiety disorders. First, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is not part of the anxiety disorders any more, but now has its own category: Obsessive-Compulsive, Stereotypic and related disorders. Second, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) now also has its own category: Trauma and Stressor-related Disorders.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the U.S., affecting more than 18% of the population. They are even more common among children, affecting an estimated 25% of children between the ages of 13 and 18. The most common anxiety disorders are Specific Phobias, affecting 8.7% of the population, and Social Anxiety, affecting 6.8% of the population.
Medication does not cure anxiety disorders but can help relieve symptoms. Medication for anxiety is prescribed by doctors, such as a psychiatrist or primary care provider. Some states also allow psychologists who have received specialized training to prescribe psychiatric medications. The most common classes of medications used to combat anxiety disorders are anti-anxiety drugs (such as benzodiazepines), antidepressants, and beta-blockers.