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.
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.
Many people don't know that their disorder is real and highly responsive to treatment. Some are afraid or embarrassed to tell anyone, including their doctors and loved ones, about what they experience for fear of being considered a hypochondriac. Instead they suffer in silence, distancing themselves from friends, family, and others who could be helpful or supportive.
More medications are available than ever before to effectively treat anxiety disorders. These include antidepressants (SSRIs, SNRIs, Tricyclic Antidepressants, MAOIs), tranquilizers (benzodiazepines, etc.) and in some cases, anticonvulsants. A person may have to try more than one medication before finding a drug or combination of drugs that works for them. Learn more about medications.
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.
The disorder in younger children is less likely to have the symptoms that involve ways of thinking (cognitive symptoms). For example, panic attacks in children may result in the child's grades declining, decreased school attendance, and avoiding that and other separations from their parents. Both children and teens with panic disorder are further at risk for developing substance abuse and depression as well as suicidal thoughts, plans, and/or actions.
Prevention is more effective than treatment for panic attacks. Prevention involves stress management methods such as meditation and mindfulness to reduce your stress so that it doesn’t accumulate and eventually erupt into a panic attack. Prevention is not about stopping a panic attack just before it happens. The best you can do just before a panic attack is manage it.
Once an individual has had a panic attack, for example, while driving, shopping in a crowded store, or riding in an elevator, he or she may develop irrational fears, called phobias, about these situations and begin to avoid them. Eventually, the avoidance and level of nervousness about the possibility of having another attack may reach the point at which the mere idea of engaging in the activities that preceded the first panic attack triggers future panic attacks, resulting in the person with panic disorder potentially being unable to drive or even step out of the house (agoraphobia). Thus, there are two types of panic disorder, panic disorder with or without agoraphobia. Like other mental health conditions, panic disorder can have a serious impact on a person's daily life unless the individual receives effective treatment.
Panic disorder sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some family members have it while others don’t. Researchers have found that several parts of the brain, as well as biological processes, play a key role in fear and anxiety. Some researchers think that people with panic disorder misinterpret harmless bodily sensations as threats. By learning more about how the brain and body functions in people with panic disorder, scientists may be able to create better treatments. Researchers are also looking for ways in which stress and environmental factors may play a role.
Although your gut response might be to leave the stressful situation immediately, don’t. “Let your anxiety level come down,” advises Carmin. Then you can decide if you want to leave or if there's a way to get back to whatever you were doing when the anxiety attack started. Staying in the moment will help you overcome anxiety, but it’s hard to do this at first.
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.
Because symptoms are so severe, many people who experience a panic attack may believe they are having a heart attack or other life-threatening illness and may go to a hospital ER. Panic attacks may be expected, such as a response to a feared object, or unexpected, apparently occurring for no reason. The mean age for onset of panic disorder is 22-23. Panic attacks may occur with other mental disorders such as depression or PTSD.
I almost had a breakdown yesterday, I got mad at my sister. She told me we’d hang out then later she bailed me. I was so mad I poured all her body lotion in the sink, I was looking for her Victoria’s Secret perfume so I could break it into pieces but couldn’t find it. (Yes, I think I have anger issues too, might need anger management). I was already frustrated with my new job. I am slightly a perfectionist and I’m having a hard time with work I’m not too familiar with. I almost broke down or did broke down but hid it very well. My heart can’t stop pounding the whole day, whole night. I went to sleep since I was so tired but I woke up in the middle of the night with my heart beating so loud and fast. Until in the morning I can’t control it. I have a feeling I need to visit my psychiatrist again. I miss talking to her though. But the medications are so expensive it makes me depress more.
The first step is to see your doctor to make sure there is no physical problem causing the symptoms. If an anxiety disorder is diagnosed, a mental health professional can work with you on the best treatment. Unfortunately, many people with anxiety disorders don’t seek help. They don’t realize that they have an illness that has effective treatments.
Phobic avoidance – You begin to avoid certain situations or environments. This avoidance may be based on the belief that the situation you’re avoiding caused a previous panic attack. Or you may avoid places where escape would be difficult or help would be unavailable if you had a panic attack. Taken to its extreme, phobic avoidance becomes agoraphobia.
Treatment for panic disorder includes medication, psychotherapy or a combination of the two. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy, teaches people how to view panic attacks differently and demonstrates ways to reduce anxiety. Appropriate treatment by an experienced professional can reduce or prevent panic attacks in 70 to 90% of people with panic disorder. Most patients show significant progress after a few weeks of therapy. Relapses may occur, but they can often be effectively treated just like the initial episode.
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.
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.
If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you’ll know it can be both a terrifying experience and exhausting experience. Panic disorder is a diagnosis given to people who experience recurrent unexpected panic attacks—that is, the attack appears to occur from out of the blue. Panic attack symptoms include sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, feelings of choking, chest pain, and a fear of dying.
For me it’s knowing or believing I don’t have enough time to finish an assignment, and then I feel like a failure. Right now, I’m doing the most difficult assignment of my life, and if I don’t finish it on time, my graduation will be delayed. This is on top of all my other responsibilities. And to think that I’m supposed to have an accommodation for extra time. Ha! The university and the state don’t care. They just want me to fail so I have to dish out more money to line the pockets of the corporation that assigned this required project.
Expected panic attacks are those which occur when you are exposed to one of your triggers. For example, if you have a fear of flying you may have a panic attack when you board a plane. Expected panic attacks are again broken down into two categories: situationally bound (cued) in which a person is anticipating exposure to a particular trigger (as with our flying example), or situationally predisposed, in which a panic attack does not always occur when exposed to the feared situation.
Exposure therapy has been around for a long time. It involves exposing the patient in a safe and controlled environment to physical sensations they experience during a panic attack much the same way you‘d expose in small increments a person with a fear of trains or puppies or snakes to the things that scares them. With panic disorder, there’s often a heightened sensitivity to ordinary physical sensations such as racing heart, stomach ache or feeling faint. In exposure therapy, the therapist will ask you to mimic activities—like running around or doing jumping jacks or holding your breath—to cause panic symptoms. The idea is that by repeating the things that may trigger a panic attack those triggers will eventually lose their power.
The typical course of panic disorder begins in adolescence and peaks in early to mid-twenties, with symptoms rarely present in children under the age of 14 or in older adults over the age of 64 (Kessler et al., 2012). Caregivers can look for symptoms of panic attacks in adolescents, followed by notable changes in their behavior (e.g., avoiding experiencing strong physical sensations), to help potentially identify the onset of panic disorder. Panic disorder is most likely to develop between the ages of 20-24 years and although females are more likely to have panic disorder, there are no significant sex differences in how the disorder presents (McLean et al., 2011).
Panic disorder affects 2-3% of people every year in the United States and Europe, with varying rates depending on race and ethnicity. On average, Native American Indian populations experience panic disorder at higher rates than non-Latino white Americans. In contrast, African Americans, Latinos, Caribbean Blacks, and Asian Americans all experience the disorder at lower rates than non-Latino white Americans. In addition, it has been well established than females are twice as likely to be diagnosed with panic disorder than males (Asnaani, Gutner, Hinton, & Hofmann, 2009; McLean, Asnaani, Litz, & Hofmann, 2011). A number of factors (e.g., biological influences, temperament, exposure to stressors and trauma, cognitive factors, and environmental factors) have been identified as possibly influencing sex differences in rates of panic disorder (McLean & Anderson, 2009). However, no one theory has been determined so the underlying reason for sex differences in rates of panic disorder remains unknown.
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.
Humor and laughter, in addition to being fun and enjoyable, have many health benefits. Laughter can help people cope with stress, reduce anxiety and tension and serve as a coping mechanism. Humor may allow a person to feel in control of a situation and make it seem more manageable. By helping to reduce fear, anger and stress, humor can help minimize the potential harm they can have on the body over time.
Many of us may know what it feels like to be nervous before a party, or when meeting new people or making an important phone call. Those with social anxiety disorder have very intense versions of those fears — intense fears of being judged by others that cause them to avoid those kinds of situations. For most people, fears of social situations usually subside once the intimidating event has been faced. But in social anxiety disorder, these feelings are persistent and usually last for at least six months.
Try to adopt a more casual attitude. so when you feel your heart start beating faster, say something to yourself like: Oops! Something set off my stress response, can’t see anything dangerous here. I’ll just wait for a few minutes for my brain and body to realize I’m not in any danger”. This type of self-talk is much better than “There’s something wrong with my heart! I’m having a heart attack, I’m dying!!”
Once you are under enough stress, almost anything can set off a panic attack. Suppose you are under a lot of stress, but still managing. If you add even more stress, your brain will begin to feel under siege. Your body will respond by releasing adrenaline as part of the fight or flight response. That will cause more anxiety, which will create a vicious feedback that will turn into a panic disorder.
Paula had her first panic attack six months ago. She was in her office preparing for an important work presentation when, suddenly, she felt an intense wave of fear. Then the room started spinning and she felt like she was going to throw up. Her whole body was shaking, she couldn’t catch her breath, and her heart was pounding out of her chest. She gripped her desk until the episode passed, but it left her deeply shaken.
Guided imagery is another relaxation strategy that can help reduce or prevent overwhelming anxiety. Guided imagery involves directed mental visualization to evoke relaxation. This could involve imagining your favorite beach or a peaceful garden that can distract you from your anxious state and allow your mind and body to focus on the positive thoughts and sensations of the imagery exercise.
When the medical personnel take my vitals, my heart rate has soared above 136 and my breathing is rapid and short. The sweating has slowed, but I am nauseous and dry heaving. It takes about 30 minutes for the aides to update my stats and explain that they think I may be having a minor heart attack or have blood clots going to my heart. They say I need to get to a hospital.