You may experience one or more panic attacks, yet be otherwise perfectly happy and healthy. Or your panic attacks may occur as part of another disorder, such as panic disorder, social phobia, or depression. Regardless of the cause, panic attacks are treatable. There are strategies you can use to cope with the symptoms as well as effective treatments.
This disorder is characterized by panic attacks and sudden feelings of terror sometimes striking repeatedly and without warning. Often mistaken for a heart attack, a panic attack causes powerful physical symptoms including chest pain, heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath and stomach upset. Many people will go to desperate measures to avoid an attack, including social isolation.
Some research suggests that your body's natural fight-or-flight response to danger is involved in panic attacks. For example, if a grizzly bear came after you, your body would react instinctively. Your heart rate and breathing would speed up as your body prepared for a life-threatening situation. Many of the same reactions occur in a panic attack. But it's unknown why a panic attack occurs when there's no obvious danger present.
Kirstie Craine Ruiz, 46, has lived with anxiety, panic attacks, and panic disorder for about ten years. For a long time, she had full-blown attacks 2-3 nights a week. “I would usually awake to a racing heart or the feeling of my heart expanding in my chest…like it might explode… From there, I would begin to panic and my heart would go even faster….and my body would shake so hard that it felt like I was having a convulsion. I could barely breathe and was usually pretty sure I was having a heart attack and that I was going to die. Sometimes I’d go the ER and they’d hold me overnight because my heart would be going so fast and they couldn’t get it to go down.”
Anxiety attack disorder generally starts with one unexplained attack that can include a number of intense anxiety attack symptoms, which causes the individual to become concerned. As other attacks occur, fear of having anxiety attacks, what they mean, what the associated symptoms mean, and where the attacks and symptoms may lead, increases. This escalation of fear is often the catalyst that brings on the attacks, causing the individual to be seemingly caught in a cycle of fear then panic, then more fear, then more panic, and so on.
This may sound counter-intuitive but trying to accept one's emotional experience can be very helpful during panic attacks. Remind yourself that anxiety is like a wave, what goes up must come down. Fighting against the experience engages the "fear of fear" cycle that can make you feel even worse. If you notice panic symptoms creeping up, label your experience and you remind yourself, "I will be okay. This will pass in time." Accepting your experience, rather than fighting against it, will likely help your panic symptoms reduce more quickly and will feel easier along the way.
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.
Panic disorder can be effectively treated with a variety of interventions, including psychological therapies and medication with the strongest and most consistent evidence indicating that cognitive behavioral therapy has the most complete and longest duration of effect, followed by specific selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Subsequent research by Barbara Milrod and her colleagues suggests that psychoanalytic psychotherapy might be effective in relieving panic attacks, however, those results alone should be addressed with care. While the results obtained in joint treatments that include cognitive behavioral therapy and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are corroborated by many studies and meta-analysis, those obtained by Barbara Milrod are not. Scientific reliability of psychoanalytic psychotherapy for treating panic disorder has not yet been addressed. Specifically, the mechanisms by which psychoanalysis reduces panic are not understood; whereas cognitive-behavioral therapy has a clear conceptual basis that can be applied to panic. The term anxiolytic has become nearly synonymous with the benzodiazepines because these compounds have been, for almost 40 years, the drugs of choice for stress-related anxiety.
Phobic avoidance – You begin to avoid certain situations or environments. This avoidance may be based on the belief that the situation you’re avoiding caused a previous panic attack. Or you may avoid places where escape would be difficult or help would be unavailable if you had a panic attack. Taken to its extreme, phobic avoidance becomes agoraphobia.
If you have a debilitating fear of being seen negatively by others and humiliated in public, you may have social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia. Social anxiety disorder can be thought of as extreme shyness. In severe cases, social situations are avoided altogether. Performance anxiety (better known as stage fright) is the most common type of social phobia.
Seeing a friend or loved one suffering a panic attack can be frightening. Their breathing may become abnormally fast and shallow, they could become dizzy or light-headed, tremble, sweat, feel nauseous, or think they’re having a heart attack. No matter how irrational you think their panicked response to a situation is, it’s important to remember that the danger seems very real to your loved one. Simply telling them to calm down or minimizing their fear won’t help. But by helping your loved one ride out a panic attack, you can help them feel less fearful of any future attacks.
According to the American Psychological Association, "most specialists agree that a combination of cognitive and behavioral therapies are the best treatment for panic disorder. Medication might also be appropriate in some cases." The first part of therapy is largely informational; many people are greatly helped by simply understanding exactly what panic disorder is and how many others suffer from it. Many people who suffer from panic disorder are worried that their panic attacks mean they are "going crazy" or that the panic might induce a heart attack. Cognitive restructuring helps people replace those thoughts with more realistic, positive ways of viewing the attacks. Avoidance behavior is one of the key aspects that prevent people with frequent panic attacks from functioning healthily. Exposure therapy, which includes repeated and prolonged confrontation with feared situations and body sensations, helps weaken anxiety responses to these external and internal stimuli and reinforce realistic ways of viewing panic symptoms.
Until recently, panic disorder was not distinguished from agoraphobia (distressing anxiety resulting from being outside the home, travelling via public transit, being in open or claustrophobic environments, or being in crowds that generally leads to extreme avoidance due to fear of not being able to escape in those situations; APA, 2013). As it stands in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - 5 agoraphobia is one of the most common disorders to co-occur with panic disorder. Current estimates contend that just under 2% of teens and adults have agoraphobia (Kessler et al., 2012). Often, people associate panic attacks or their panic disorder with certain places, people, or events and the fear of another attack occurring can lead to comorbid fears of the location or idea that there is no escape, which leads to extreme avoidance. Panic disorder can also occur simultaneously with other anxiety disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and/or Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), for example.
Psychologically, people who develop panic attacks or another anxiety disorder are more likely to have a history of what is called anxiety sensitivity. Anxiety sensitivity is the tendency for a person to fear that anxiety-related bodily sensations (like brief chest pain or stomach upset) have dire personal consequences (for example, believing that it automatically means their heart will stop or they will throw up, respectively). From a social standpoint, a risk factor for developing panic disorder as an adolescent or adult is a history of being physically or sexually abused as a child. This is even more the case for panic disorder when compared to other anxiety disorders. Often, the first attacks are triggered by physical illnesses, another major life stress, or perhaps medications that increase activity in the part of the brain involved in fear reactions.
There are many highly effective treatment options available for anxiety and anxiety-related disorders. These treatments can be broadly categorized as: 1) Psychotherapy; 2) Medications; and 3) Complementary and Alternative Therapies. Patients diagnosed with anxiety can benefit from one or a combination of these various therapies. Discussions of emerging therapies and types of care providers are also included.
Anxiety is associated with abnormal patterns of activity in the brain. One way to treat anxiety is to directly target abnormal nerve cell activity. Neuromodulation or brain stimulation therapy is a non-invasive and painless therapy that stimulates the human brain. In some recent clinical trials, patients that did not respond to more traditional forms of treatment (i.e. medication) showed a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety. There are two main types of neuromodulation:
Moreover, this hypocapnia and release of adrenaline during a panic attack cause vasoconstriction resulting in slightly less blood flow to the head which causes dizziness and lightheadedness. A panic attack can cause blood sugar to be drawn away from the brain and toward the major muscles. Neuroimaging suggests heightened activity in the amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, and brainstem regions including the periaqueductal gray, parabrachial nucleus, and Locus coeruleus. In particular, the amygdala has been suggested to have a critical role. The combination of high arousal in the amygdala and brainstem along with decreased blood flow and blood sugar in the brain can lead to dramatically decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain. There is evidence that having an anxiety disorder increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Those affected also have a reduction in heart rate variability.
Women are more than two times as likely as men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. (6) It’s not clear why this is the case, but researchers have theorized that it may be due to a combination of social and biological factors. Scientists are still investigating the complex role that sex plays in brain chemistry, but some research suggests that in women, the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for processing potential threats, may be more sensitive to negative stimuli and may hold on to the memory of it longer. (7)
In Europe about 3% of the population has a panic attack in a given year while in the United States they affect about 11%. They are more common in females than males. They often begin during puberty or early adulthood. Children and older people are less commonly affected. A meta-analysis was conducted on data collected about twin studies and family studies on the link between genes and panic disorder. The researchers also examined the possibility of a link to phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and generalized anxiety disorder. The researchers used a database called MEDLINE to accumulate their data. The results concluded that the aforementioned disorders have a genetic component and are inherited or passed down through genes. For the non-phobias, the likelihood of inheriting is 30%-40% and for the phobias, it was 50%-60%.
It is not unusual to experience only one or two symptoms at a time, such as vibrations in their legs, shortness of breath, or an intense wave of heat traveling up their bodies, which is not similar to hot flashes due to estrogen shortage. Some symptoms, such as vibrations in the legs, are sufficiently different from any normal sensation that they clearly indicate panic disorder. Other symptoms on the list can occur in people who may or may not have panic disorder. Panic disorder does not require four or more symptoms to all be present at the same time. Causeless panic and racing heartbeat are sufficient to indicate a panic attack.
Please Note: In some cases, children, teenagers, and young adults under 25 may experience an increase in suicidal thoughts or behavior when taking antidepressant medications, especially in the first few weeks after starting or when the dose is changed. Because of this, patients of all ages taking antidepressants should be watched closely, especially during the first few weeks of treatment.