These episodes are a serious health problem in the U.S. At least 20% of adult Americans, or about 60 million people, will suffer from panic at some point in their lives. About 1.7% of adult Americans, or about 3 million people, will have full-blown panic disorder at some time in their lives, women twice as often as men. The most common age at which people have their first panic attack (onset) is between 15 and 19 years of age. Panic attacks are significantly different from other types of anxiety, in that panic attacks are very sudden and often unexpected, appear to be unprovoked, and are often disabling.
The above statements are two examples of what a panic attack might feel like. Panic attacks may be symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Historically, panic has been described in ancient civilizations, as with the reaction of the subjects of Ramses II to his death in 1213 BC in Egypt, and in Greek mythology as the reaction that people had to seeing Pan, the half man, half goat god of flocks and shepherds. In medieval then Renaissance Europe, severe anxiety was grouped with depression in descriptions of what was then called melancholia. During the 19th century, panic symptoms began to be described as neurosis, and eventually the word panic began being used in psychiatry.
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.
We have all felt anxiety—the nervousness before a date, test, competition, presentation—but what exactly is it? Anxiety is our body's way of preparing to face a challenge. Our heart pumps more blood and oxygen so we are ready for action. We are alert and perform physical and emotional tasks more efficiently. (See also Test Anxiety for tips on dealing with tests.)
Now as you feel slightly calmer, you need to identify and face the roots of the anxiety attack. The truth is – there’s always a trigger for it. Even if it’s not obvious, it’s always there. Panic attacks can happen as a response to a stressful or traumatic issue that happened months ago. Try digging into your mind and thinking of the exact cue that might have caused it. Remember, an anxiety attack is just a host of physical reactions. No matter how real it feels, the danger is usually non-existent.
If you, or someone you know, has symptoms of anxiety disorder, visit a clinician, who can help determine whether the symptoms are due to an anxiety disorder, medical condition or both. Frequently, the next step in getting treatment for an anxiety disorder is referral to a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or counselor.
Approximately one-third of people with panic disorder will also develop agoraphobia. People with agoraphobia are afraid that they will have some anxiety symptoms or a full-blown panic attack in a place where it would be very challenging or embarrassing for them to flee. This condition can lead to avoidance behaviors, in which they try to stay away from all places or situations in which they may have a panic attack.
Chest pain is always an alarming symptom, because most of us (appropriately) associate it with cardiac conditions, in particular angina or a myocardial infarction (heart attack). However, chest pain can also be caused by a number of conditions that have nothing to do with the heart. And one of the more common non-cardiac problems that frequently produces chest pain is an anxiety attack.
Occasional anxiety is an expected part of life. You might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or before making an important decision. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The symptoms can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships.