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.)
Anxiety disorders are a group of mental disorders characterized by exaggerated feelings of anxiety and fear responses. Anxiety is a worry about future events and fear is a reaction to current events. These feelings may cause physical symptoms, such as a fast heart rate and shakiness. There are a number of anxiety disorders: including generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobia, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, panic disorder, and selective mutism. The disorder differs by what results in the symptoms. People often have more than one anxiety disorder.
Medications options for panic attacks typically include benzodiazepines and antidepressants. Benzodiazepines are being prescribed less often because of their potential side effects, such as dependence, fatigue, slurred speech, and memory loss. Antidepressant treatments for panic attacks include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and MAO inhibitors (MAOIs). SSRIs in particular tend to be the first drug treatment used to treat panic attacks. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants appear similar for short-term efficacy. SSRIs carry a relatively low risk due to the fact that they are not associated with much of a tolerance or dependence, and are difficult to overdose with. TCAs are similar to SSRIs in their many advantages, but come with more common side effects such as weight gain and cognitive disturbances. They are also easier to overdose on. MAOIs are generally suggested for patients who have not responded to other forms of treatment.
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Hyperventilation syndrome may occur when a person breathes from the chest, which can lead to overbreathing (exhaling excessive carbon dioxide in relation to the amount of oxygen in one's bloodstream). Hyperventilation syndrome can cause respiratory alkalosis and hypocapnia. This syndrome often involves prominent mouth breathing as well. This causes a cluster of symptoms, including rapid heart beat, dizziness, and lightheadedness, which can trigger panic attacks.
Anxiety attacks can last anywhere between a few moments to 30 or more minutes. It’s also common for subsequent anxiety attacks to follow, causing the overall anxiety attack experience to last much longer as one episode is followed by another. Even though anxiety attacks eventually end, it’s common for the symptoms and after effects of an anxiety attack to linger for hours or even days, depending upon the severity of the attack and the level of stress your body is under.
From a cardiac standpoint, unless coincident heart disease is also present, the prognosis after having chest pain due to an anxiety attack is very good. However, all too often—especially in an emergency room setting where people who have chest pain due to anxiety attacks often wind up—doctors who rule out a cardiac emergency are likely to brush the patient off as having a minor problem of no significance; but panic attacks should not be brushed off.
A panic attack is an abrupt surge of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes, and during which time a variety of psychological and physical symptoms occur. These symptoms include rapid heart rate, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, hot flashes, and lightheadedness—as well as a sense of impending doom, chills, nausea, abdominal pain, chest pain, headache, and numbness or tingling.
According to a study published in Psychology Medicine1, people who suffer from panic attacks and panic disorder may be at higher risk of heart attack and heart disease later in life. While the link between panic disorder and heart disease remains controversial, the study found that compared to individuals without panic disorder, sufferers were found to have up to a 36% higher risk of heart attack and up to 47% higher risk of heart disease. If you suffer from panic attacks, seek attention for any chest pain symptoms in order to rule out any issues with heart health.
If I might make a suggestion for another coping mechanism: go near someone you trust – a friend, family member, or spouse. There’s safety in numbers, and even your subconscious knows that. Being near someone you trust can be comforting, as you’ll be able to get their help if something really does happen. It doesn’t matter if you talk to them, if they’re paying attention to you, or even if they’re sleeping – them simply being nearby and available to call upon if something happens will dull your fear.
Characterized by a suite of symptoms that persist for at least three days and up to one month after a traumatic experience (same diagnostic criteria for "trauma" as listed above). The specific symptoms of the disorder vary across individuals, but a common feature is intense anxiety in response to re-experiencing symptoms (e.g., recurrent intrusive recollections of traumatic event) of the trauma.
So how do you know if your anxiety is “normal” or “excessive?” It’s normal to be worried about an upcoming test or wondering how you are going to cope financially when you unexpectedly find out you need major repairs done to your house. If you are suffering from the type of excessive worry that accompanies Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you may see a report on the local news about a new health scare in a different country and stay awake at night worrying about you or your family being affected, even though risks are minimal at best. You will likely spend the next few days and weeks in a constant state of worry about the well-being of your family and experience anxiety that is debilitating, intrusive, excessive, and persistent.
EMDR is a psychotherapy that alleviates the distress and emotional disturbances that are elicited from the memories of traumatic events. It is primarily administered to treat PTSD, and is very similar to exposure therapy. This therapy helps patients to process the trauma so that they can heal. During the therapy, patients pay attention to a back and forth movement or sound while recounting their traumatic memories. Patients continue these sessions until the memory becomes less distressing. EMDR sessions typically last 50-90 minutes and are administered weekly for 1-3 months, although many patients report experiencing a reduction of symptoms after a few sessions of EMDR.
People who have panic attacks typically spend a lot of time worrying about having more attacks and often make seemingly unreasonable lifestyle changes in an attempt to avoid circumstances that will trigger future attacks. They may avoid situations that, they feel, have precipitated previous episodes or environments where they would not be able to escape easily if another attack should occur.
Why stress happens and how to manage it Stress is essential for survival; the chemicals it triggers help the body prepare to face danger and cope with difficulty. Long-term stress is linked to various health conditions and can cause physical and psychological symptoms. How is it diagnosed, what types of stress are there, and how is it treated or managed? Read now
4) Ice, Ice Baby. For nighttime panic attacks, Kirstie Craine Ruiz keeps about 4 ready-to-go ice packs—2 big and 2 small– in her freezer. When she feels panic coming she puts two small ones in her hand and the 2 large ones on my lower back. “If your heart is really racing and your breathing is bad, I would suggest taking the one on your belly and rubbing it from the middle of your chest down to the bottom of your belly, slowly, and over and over until your heart rate starts to mellow (over your shirt, of course- you don’t want to make yourself freezing!). I feel like when I do this, it literally moves the hyper energy down from my chest and alleviates any chest pain. This method always helps me when it feels like my heart is in my throat. Once you feel as though you can breathe again, place the packs on your lower belly or lower back, and in the palms of your hands. I don’t know if it’s pressure points but holding small smooth ice packs in both hands with palms up, does wonders for my panic, to this day.”
Agoraphobia: This is a fear and avoidance of places, events, or situations from which it may be difficult to escape or in which help would not be available if a person becomes trapped. People often misunderstand this condition as a phobia of open spaces and the outdoors, but it is not so simple. A person with agoraphobia may have a fear of leaving home or using elevators and public transport.
DBT uses a skills-based approach to help patients regulate their emotions. It is a prefered treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder, but call also be effective for anxiety disorders such as PTSD. This treatment teaches patients how to develop skills for how to regulate their emotions, stress-management, mindfulness, and interpersonal effectiveness. It was developed to be employed in either one-on-one therapy sessions or group sessions. This type of therapy is typically long-term and patients are usually in treatment for a year or more.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder affects people after terrifying events such as physical or sexual abuse, car accidents, war or natural disasters. Individuals with PTSD may experience depression, flashbacks, nightmares, sleep difficulties, irritability, aggression, violence, and a feeling of detachment or numbness. Symptoms can be triggered by anything that reminds the individual of their trauma.
"These techniques take some getting used to,” says Dave Carbonell, PhD, an anxiety therapist in Chicago, but learning how to cope with anxiety attacks is important so that fear of having another won't keep you at home or limit your activities. A study in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine in 2013 found that multiple approaches to managing anxiety, including strategies like breathing and journaling, can help.
Although each anxiety disorder has unique characteristics, most respond well to two types of treatment: psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” and medications. These treatments can be given alone or in combination. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy, can help a person learn a different way of thinking, reacting and behaving to help feel less anxious. Medications will not cure anxiety disorders, but can give significant relief from symptoms. The most commonly used medications are anti-anxiety medications (generally prescribed only for a short period of time) and antidepressants. Beta-blockers, used for heart conditions, are sometimes used to control physical symptoms of anxiety.
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.
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.
While obsessive-compulsive disorder is not officially classified by the American Psychological Association as an anxiety disorder, it shares many traits with common anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder. In both conditions, you may know that your thoughts are irrational, but you feel unable to stop thinking them. Often, but not always, these thoughts may concern cleanliness, sex, or religion.
Here’s another way to differentiate those feelings. Let’s say you’re someone who suffers from panic attacks. If you’re worried about having the next panic attack, that’s “anticipatory anxiety—the worry of, Oh, no, I’m going to have a panic attack,” says Brown. On the other hand, “The emotion I’m feeling when I’m having a panic attack we would think of as fear.”
Your brain focuses on some alleged thread, for instance, a very scary thought that was floating somewhere at your subconscious. Your thalamus – the part of the brain responsible for regulating consciousness, sleep and alertness – transfers that information to your amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions, decision-making and memory – which marks it as “danger” and sends a signal to your sympathetic nervous system, activating the fight-or-flight response.
“Panic disorder is diagnosed if the individual has recurrent panic attacks (minimum four in a four-week period), and at least one of the attacks is accompanied by one or more physical symptoms, including persistent concern about having another attack, worry about the implication or consequences of the attack (i.e., having a heart attack), and/or a significant change in behaviour due to the attacks, such as quitting a job.7 In addition, the panic attacks cannot be due to the physiological effects of a substance or another general medical condition.”
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.
Anxiety, worry, and stress are all a part of most people’s everyday lives. But simply experiencing anxiety or stress in and of itself does not mean you need to get professional help or that you have an anxiety disorder. In fact, anxiety is an important and sometimes necessary warning signal of a dangerous or difficult situation. Without anxiety, we would have no way of anticipating difficulties ahead and preparing for them.
Anyone who’s ever had a panic attack can tell you what a rollercoaster-of-a-ride it can be. It comes on suddenly, gripping its victims in extreme fear and heart-thumping, breathtaking physical distress. Minutes later, it’s over. When panic attacks occur repeatedly and people’s lives are gripped by fear of having the next panic episode, they may be diagnosed with panic disorder.