Panic disorder is a separate but related diagnosis to panic attacks. People experiencing repeated panic attacks and who meet other diagnostic criteria may be diagnosed with this illness. Panic disorder is thought to have more of an inherited component than panic attacks that are not a part of panic disorder. Certain medical conditions, like asthma and heart disease, as well as certain medications, like steroids and some asthma medications, can cause anxiety attacks as a symptom or side effect. As individuals with panic disorder are at higher risk of having a heart-valve abnormality called mitral valve prolapse (MVP), that should be evaluated by a doctor since MVP may indicate that specific precautions be taken when the person is treated for a dental problem.
Yes, panic attacks can feel awful, intense, and threatening. But they aren’t harmful and generally pass when the body calms down. And yes, they can range in number, intensity, and frequency with each person experiencing a unique set of panic attack symptoms. But panic attacks and their symptoms can be overcome for good by getting the right information, help, and support. We provide more detailed information in the Recovery Support area of our website.
In contrast, the term anxiety attack is not a specifier outlined in the DSM-5. Rather, anxiety is used to describe a core feature of multiple different anxiety disorders. The culmination of symptoms that result from being in a state of anxiety—such as restlessness, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and difficulty concentrating—may feel like an “attack,” but are generally less intense than those experienced at the height of a panic attack.
Panic disorder is characterized by repeated, unexpected panic attacks, as well as fear of experiencing another episode. A panic disorder may also be accompanied by agoraphobia, which is the fear of being in places where escape or help would be difficult in the event of a panic attack. If you have agoraphobia, you are likely to avoid public places such as shopping malls, or confined spaces such as an airplane.
Not everyone understands is that someone with an anxiety disorder cannot "just let things go". This makes the struggle with an anxiety disorder even harder, and may prevent one from looking for help. However, it is very important to talk about these anxieties with someone and preferably find a health care professional as soon as you experience these symptoms. Anxiety should be considered as severe as a physical disease; however, most people in society do not appreciate the severity of this disorder. Some people may consider anxiety a fault or a weakness; however, it may help if people realize that many research studies have demonstrated biological explanations for (some of) the symptoms observed in anxiety disorders. Brain scans have demonstrated brain abnormalities in certain anxiety disorders, and also altered brain functioning has been demonstrated for individuals with anxiety disorders. Furthermore, there is some evidence that anxiety disorders might be linked to chemical imbalances in the brain.
Fortunately, panic disorder is one of the most treatable of the anxiety disorders. Psychotherapy (sometimes called talk therapy), cognitive, or biofeedback therapy can all help alter a person's response to stimuli. Medications, such as antidepressants and beta-blockers, are another option. And certain lifestyle changes, such as limiting caffeine and sticking to a daily exercise plan, can decrease symptoms as well.
As with most behavioral illnesses, the causes of panic attacks are many. Certainly there is evidence that the tendency to have panic attacks can sometimes be inherited. However, there is also evidence that panic may be a learned response and that the attacks can be initiated in otherwise healthy people simply given the right set of circumstances. Research into the causes of panic attacks is ongoing.
Other research suggests that social structures that contribute to inequality, such as lower wages, may play a part. In a study published in January 2016 in the journal Social Science and Medicine, Columbia epidemiologists reviewed data on wages and mood disorders, and noted that, at least in their data set, when a woman's pay rose higher than a man's, the odds of her having both generalized anxiety disorder and major depression decreased. (10)
There are a number of things people do to help cope with symptoms of anxiety disorders and make treatment more effective. Stress management techniques and meditation can be helpful. Support groups (in-person or online) can provide an opportunity to share experiences and coping strategies. Learning more about the specifics of a disorder and helping family and friends to understand better can also be helpful. Avoid caffeine, which can worsen symptoms, and check with your doctor about any medications.
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.
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.
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.
Paula had her next panic attack three weeks later, and since then, they’ve been occurring with increasing frequency. She never knows when or where she’ll suffer an attack, but she’s afraid of having one in public. Consequently, she’s been staying home after work, rather than going out with friends. She also refuses to ride the elevator up to her 12th floor office out of fear of being trapped if she has a panic attack.