If you’ve ever experienced a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear then you’re familiar with the feeling of having a panic attack. Your heart pounds, you can’t breathe, and you may even feel like you’re dying or going crazy. Left untreated, panic attacks can lead to panic disorder and other problems. They may even cause you to withdraw from normal activities. But panic attacks can be cured and the sooner you seek help, the better. With the right treatment and self-help, you can reduce or eliminate the symptoms of panic, regain your confidence, and take back control of your life
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.
When people are confronted with unpleasant and potentially harmful stimuli such as foul odors or tastes, PET-scans show increased bloodflow in the amygdala. In these studies, the participants also reported moderate anxiety. This might indicate that anxiety is a protective mechanism designed to prevent the organism from engaging in potentially harmful behaviors.
In people with anxiety disorders, the brain circuitry that controls the threat response goes awry. At the heart of the circuit is the amygdala, a structure that flags incoming signals as worrisome and communicates with other parts of the brain to put the body on alert for danger. Early life events, especially traumatic ones, can program the circuitry so that it is oversensitive and sends out alarms too frequently and with only minor provocations. Survival mandates a system for perceiving threats and taking quick, automatic action, but those with anxiety see threats where there are none, perhaps because emotional memories color their perceptions.
The causes of anxiety attacks are not well understood. Some traumatic life events can set off anxiety attacks if the person is prone to depression or anxiety disorders. Also, medical conditions and some medications may trigger anxiety attacks. Many believe anxiety attacks run in families with a genetic predisposition. In other words, if your mom and her sister had anxiety attacks, it’s likely you will, too.
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.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is considered to be the gold standard of treatment, especially for panic disorder. CBT focuses on educating clients about their disorders, identifying and changing maladaptive thoughts and fears, learning relaxation and other coping strategies, and helping clients face their fears. Research has shown that CBT for panic disorder is also effective when there are other comorbid disorders present as well and that the key component that makes CBT effective is the exposure ("facing your fears") module (Hofmann, 2011).
Psychotherapy is at least as important as medication treatment of panic disorder. In fact, research shows that psychotherapy alone or the combination of medication and psychotherapy treatment are more effective than medications alone in overcoming panic attacks. To address anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy is widely accepted as an effective form of psychotherapy. This form of therapy seeks to help those with panic disorder identify and decrease the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that reinforce panic symptoms. Behavioral techniques that are often used to decrease anxiety include relaxation and gradually increasing the panic sufferer's exposure to situations that may have previously caused anxiety. Helping the anxiety sufferer understand the emotional issues that may have contributed to developing symptoms is called panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy and has also been found to be effective.
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.
It’s normal to feel anxious when facing a challenging situation, such as a job interview, a tough exam, or a first date. But if your worries and fears are preventing you from living your life the way you’d like to, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. There are many different types of anxiety disorders—as well as many effective treatments and self-help strategies. Once you understand your anxiety disorder, there are steps you can take to reduce your symptoms and regain control of your life.
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.
If you have Panic Disorder, the chances are very high that you have altered your life in some significant way in an effort to prevent or avoid additional panic attacks. It is common, for instance, for people to limit their travel; to restrict their driving (maybe staying within a certain radius from home, or avoiding highways); to avoid large, crowded shopping malls; and in general, to attempt to avoid any activity from which "escape" may be difficult.
A large brief current is passed through a wire coil that is placed on the front of the head which is near the areas that regulate mood. The transient current creates a magnetic field that produces an electric current in the brain and stimulates nerve cells in the targeted region. The current typically only affects brain regions that are 5 centimeters deep into the brain which allows doctors to selectively target which brain regions to treat. Typical sessions lasts 30-60 minutes and do not require anesthesia. Sessions are administered 4-5 times a week for about 6 weeks. Although the procedure is painless, patients may experience a gentle tapping in the area of the head where the current is being administered. Neuromodulation has very few side effects but they may include headaches, slight tingling or discomfort in the area in which the coil is placed. rTMS may be administered alone or in combination with medication and/or psychotherapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on the thinking patterns and behaviors that are sustaining or triggering your panic attacks and helps you look at your fears in a more realistic light. For example, if you had a panic attack while driving, what is the worst thing that would really happen? While you might have to pull over to the side of the road, you are not likely to crash your car or have a heart attack. Once you learn that nothing truly disastrous is going to happen, the experience of panic becomes less terrifying.
I have occasional panic attacks, typically around one or two of what I consider minor panic attacks per month. A minor panic attack is one that I catch and manage to head off before it grows full-blown. I just have so much experience having and handling panic attacks that I’ve learned the curb them…usually. Sometimes, my coping mechanisms don’t work and I’m left suffering a full-blown panic attack and, of course, they’re terrible. I’m always on the lookout for new and better coping mechanisms to minimize the chances of one slipping through like that.
Anxiety disorders can often be addressed successfully with a combination of therapy and medication. For therapy, patients may undergo psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, in which they learn to change how they respond to situations that induce anxiety. For medications, clinicians may, for limited periods of time, prescribe antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or tricyclics, tranquilizers such as benzodiazepines; they may also prescribe beta blockers for specific events. Different strategies can also help people who experience feelings of anxiety but the severity of which falls below the clinical threshold for diagnosis. Habits such as exercising, sleeping well, and limiting the amount of caffeine and alcohol consumed can prove helpful. Strategies such as taking deep breaths, acknowledging limits to fully controlling situations, pushing back against anxious or irrational thoughts, and observing the circumstances that tend to produce anxiety are proven to reduce anxiety by helping people feel better prepared in the future.