Great questions. Unfortunately, there is usually no clear cut answer – and like many mental health disorders – it is likely caused by a combination of genetic, behavioral, and developmental factors. Anatomically speaking, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is most closely related to a disruption in the functional connectivity of the amygdala – the “emotional control center” of the brain – and how it processes feelings of fear and anxiety. Genetics also play a role in Generalized Anxiety Disorder. If you have a family member that also suffers from this disorder, your chances of suffering from it are increased, especially in the presence of a life stressor. Interestingly, long-term substance abuse also increases your chances of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, as the use of benzodiazepines can worsen your anxiety levels, as can excessive alcohol use. Tobacco use and caffeine are also both associated with increased levels of anxiety.
One of the scariest early experiences in panic disorder is having a panic attack and not knowing what is happening to your body. By learning more about panic attacks and panic disorder, you can start to label and identify the experience that you are having. Although the experience of panic attacks is very distressing, having a panic attack will not cause you to die or to completely lose control and they do not mean that you are going crazy. Sometimes, just knowing what is going on can help people to feel better. For example, the next time you have a panic attack, you can tell yourself "this is anxiety. I have felt this before and I was okay."
Warren: So if you’re walking down a dark alley, you are probably thinking that there could be potential danger; that anxiety of anticipation, the feeling in your stomach, the elevated heart rate. But if you’re walking down that alley and somebody jumps out with a knife, then you’re likely to have a panic attack — an overwhelming urge to escape a situation that is dangerous.
Because involuntary panic attacks can be caused by other medical conditions, such as mitral valve prolapse, thyroid problems, hyperglycemia, side effects from certain types of medications, recreational drug use (such as marijuana), stimulants, etc., it’s best to discuss your panic attacks and symptoms with your doctor to rule out any medical cause.
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in The Concept of Anxiety (1844), described anxiety or dread associated with the "dizziness of freedom" and suggested the possibility for positive resolution of anxiety through the self-conscious exercise of responsibility and choosing. In Art and Artist (1932), the psychologist Otto Rank wrote that the psychological trauma of birth was the pre-eminent human symbol of existential anxiety and encompasses the creative person's simultaneous fear of – and desire for – separation, individuation, and differentiation.
Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.
Benzodiazepines are often used to provide short-term relief of panic symptoms. Clonazepam (Klonopin) and lorazepam (Ativan) are examples of this group of medications. Although another benzodiazepine, alprazolam (Xanax), is often used to treat panic attacks, the short period of time that it works can cause the panic sufferer to have to take it multiple times each day. Benzodiazepines tend to be effective in decreasing panic attacks by up to 70%-75% almost immediately; however, this class of medications has a strong addiction potential and should be used with caution. Additional drawbacks include sedation, memory loss, and after several weeks, tolerance to their effects and withdrawal symptoms may occur.
In particular, the doctor will be concerned with the person's past medical history, past history of any mental illness, and any surgery the person may have had. In addition to exploring whether the person suffers from any other mental illness, the practitioner often explores whether the panic attack sufferer has a specific anxiety disorder in addition to or instead of panic disorder, like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder.
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.
Generalized anxiety disorder involves persistent and excessive worry that interferes with daily activities. This ongoing worry and tension may be accompanied by physical symptoms, such as restlessness, feeling on edge or easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension or problems sleeping. Often the worries focus on everyday things such as job responsibilities, family health or minor matters such as chores, car repairs, or appointments.
Primarily, it is important to stay calm, patient, and understanding. Help your friend wait out the panic attack by encouraging them to take deep breaths in for four seconds and out for four seconds. Stay with them and assure them that this attack is only temporary and they will get through it. You can also remind them that they can leave the environment they are in if they would feel more comfortable elsewhere and try to engage them in light-hearted conversation.
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. The term recurrent refers to the fact that the individual has had more than one unexpected panic attack. In contrast, expected panic attacks occur when there is an obvious cue or trigger, such as a specific phobia or generalized anxiety disorder. In the U.S., roughly 50% of people with panic disorder experience both unexpected and expected panic attacks.
Because there are many medical conditions that can cause anxiety attack signs and symptoms, such as the strong sensations and feelings associated with anxiety attacks, it’s wise to discuss them with your doctor. If your doctor has attributed your anxiety attacks to stress and anxiety, you can feel confident that your doctor’s diagnosis is correct. Anxiety attacks and their signs and symptoms are relatively easy to diagnose and aren’t easily confused with other medical conditions.
People with panic disorder often worry about when the next attack will happen and actively try to prevent future attacks by avoiding places, situations, or behaviors they associate with panic attacks. Worry about panic attacks, and the effort spent trying to avoid attacks, cause significant problems in various areas of the person’s life, including the development of agoraphobia (see below).