Panic disorder is thought to have a psychobiological conceptualization (Craske & Barlow, 2007). This does not mean that panic attacks are due to a biological disease. What this does mean is that there are certain biological factors that may be inherited or passed on through genes, and thus may lead some people to be more likely than others to experience panic disorder symptoms. This is likely why panic disorder seems to run in families. In other words, if one family member has panic disorder, the other family members are more likely to experience panic symptoms or panic disorder compared to people without a family history of panic disorder. It is very important to note that just inheriting these vulnerabilities to panic does not make the onset of panic attacks inevitable or unalterable. In fact, it is possible to think and act in ways that prevent panic attacks.
A first panic attack is usually unexpected, and comes "out of the blue." It may scare you so much that you start taking steps to protect yourself from future attacks. Maybe you start avoiding places that remind you of your first attack. Maybe you only go out after making sure you have your cell phone, a bottle of water, and other objects you hope will keep you safe. Maybe you try hard to "stop thinking about it." You work hard to keep the panic at bay.
It should be noted that finding the right strategy that works for you to control your anxiety is important. Maybe you feel that you do not have the time to schedule "me time" with your busy schedule or kids, and you need to find another way to reduce your anxiety. A friend or therapist could be a great resource to turn to if you believe you need help with finding the right strategies to reduce your anxiety.
Biological causes may include obsessive compulsive disorder, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, post traumatic stress disorder, hypoglycemia, hyperthyroidism, Wilson's disease, mitral valve prolapse, pheochromocytoma, and inner ear disturbances (labyrinthitis). Dysregulation of the norepinephrine system in the locus ceruleus, an area of the brain stem, has been linked to panic attacks.
The psychotherapy component of treatment for panic disorder is at least as important as medication. In fact, research shows that psychotherapy alone or the combination of medication and psychotherapy treatment are more effective than medication alone in the long-term management of panic attacks. In overcoming anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy is widely accepted as an effective form of psychotherapy treatment, for both adults and children. This form of psychotherapy seeks to help those with panic disorder identify and decrease the irrational thoughts and behaviors that reinforce panic symptoms and can be done either individually, in group therapy, in partner-assisted therapy, and even over the Internet. Behavioral techniques that are often used to decrease anxiety include relaxation techniques (like breathing techniques or guided imagery) and gradually increasing exposure to situations that may have previously triggered anxiety in the panic disorder sufferer. Helping the person with anxiety understand how to handle the emotional forces that may have contributed to developing symptoms (panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy) has also been found to be effective in teaching an individual with panic disorder how to prevent an anxiety attack or how to calm down in order to decrease or stop a panic attack once it starts.
Some medical conditions, like thyroid abnormalities and anemia, as well as certain medications, can produce severe anxiety. Examples of such medications include stimulants like methylphenidate (Ritalin) or amphetamine salts (Adderall), diabetes medications like metformin (Glucophage) and insulin, antimalarial medications like quinine, as well as corticosteroid withdrawal, such as withdrawal from dexamethasone (Decadron). As individuals with panic disorder seem to be at higher risk of having a heart valve abnormality called mitral valve prolapse (MVP), this possibility should be investigated by a doctor since MVP may dictate the need for special precautions when the individual is being treated for any dental problem. While the development of panic attacks has been attributed to the use of food additives like aspartame, alone or in combination with food dyes, more research is needed to better understand the role such substances may have on this disorder.
There remains a chance of panic symptoms becoming triggered or being made worse due to increased respiration rate that occurs during aerobic exercise. This increased respiration rate can lead to hyperventilation and hyperventilation syndrome, which mimics symptoms of a heart attack, thus inducing a panic attack. Benefits of incorporating an exercise regimen have shown best results when paced accordingly.
To receive a diagnosis of panic disorder, the panic attacks must be unexpected and during the attack four or more of the above symptoms must occur. For panic attacks that are expected, meaning they might not be expected by the individual but are expected in relation to any phobia, anxiety or other mental health disorder, four or more symptoms must also occur.
Loved ones, as well as medical personnel, generally attempt to reassure the panic attack sufferer that he or she is not in great danger. However, these efforts at reassurance can sometimes add to the patient's struggles. If the doctors say things like, "it's nothing serious," "it's all in your head," or "nothing to worry about," this may give the false impression that there is no real problem, they should be able to overcome their symptoms without help, and that treatment is not possible or necessary. More accurately, while panic attacks can undoubtedly be serious, they are not organ-threatening. Therefore, for people who might wonder what to do to help the panic sufferer at the time of an anxiety attack, a more effective approach tends to be acknowledge their fear and the intensity of their symptoms while reassuring the person having the panic attack that what is occurring is not life-threatening and can be treated.
Family Therapy is a type of group therapy that includes the patient's family to help them improve communication and develop better skills for solving conflicts. This therapy is useful if the family is contributing to the patient's anxiety. During this short-term therapy, the patient's family learns how not to make the anxiety symptoms worse and to better understand the patient. The length of treatment varies depending on the severity of symptoms.
Demographic factors also impact risk for anxiety disorders. While there is not a strong consensus, research suggests that risk for anxiety disorders decreases over the lifespan with lower risk being demonstrated later in life. Women are significantly more likely to experience anxiety disorders. Another robust biological and sociodemographic risk factor for anxiety disorders is gender, as women are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety. Overall symptom severity has also been shown to be more severe in women compared to men, and women with anxiety disorders typically report a lower quality of life than men. This sex difference in the prevalence and severity of anxiety disorders that puts women at a disadvantage over men is not specific to anxiety disorders, but is also found in depression and other stress-related adverse health outcomes (i.e. obesity and cardiometabolic disease). Basic science and clinical studies suggest that ovarian hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, and their fluctuations may play an important role in this sex difference in anxiety disorder prevalence and severity. While changes in estrogen and progesterone, over the month as well as over the lifetime, are linked to change in anxiety symptom severity and have been shown to impact systems implicated in the etiology of anxiety disorders (i.e. the stress axis), it still remains unclear how these hormones and their fluctuations increase women's vulnerability to anxiety.
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.
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.
Try your best not to avoid or push away feelings of panic. Instead, breathe into the experience and practice your acceptance (as described above). Avoiding situations or bodily sensations associated with panic attacks may seem helpful in the short-term because it helps to immediately make our anxiety decrease. But in the long-term, it is not helpful because it teaches our brains that those physical sensations were a "true alarm" or something to really be afraid of. Instead, if we approach the sensations and situations that make us anxious, perhaps a little bit at a time, we can rewire our brains over time to learn that these things are not so scary after all. By repeating this approach process over and over, you can begin to see that these physical sensations you are having are not so scary and this can help reduce panic symptoms in the future or at least make them much more manageable in the moment. Remember the saying, "avoidance is anxiety's best friend" because the more we avoid, the more anxious we tend to feel. So, try out approaching the things that make you anxious with an "I can do this!" attitude.
Only 16, Caroline, had her first panic attack a year ago. Her mother was dropping her off at her summer job at a local school when, without warning, a full-blown panic attack engulfed her. “My heart started racing and my body felt so hot. I started to sweat and shake uncontrollably. My vision became distorted and my body felt limp, like a wet noodle,” she says. For 20 minutes, until the panic attacked passed, Caroline refused to get out of the car. Her mother didn’t know what to do.
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.