At some point in our lives, most of us will experience a panic attack in response to an actual danger or acute stress. But when panic attacks occur or recur for no reason and in the absence of danger or extreme stress, or when the fear of experiencing another attack is so strong that you change your behavior by avoiding certain places or people, you may have panic disorder.
I’m not sure if this counts as a panic attack, but lately I’ve experienced instances where my head feels like it’s being squeezed, I feel really dizzy, and I get an intense fear of becoming schizophrenic because In that moment it feels like I’m going crazy. It’s happening right now and I’m kind of freaking out because the feeling won’t stop. I’m worried that it’ll never go away and I’ll be like this forever. Hopefully this is just a panic attack?
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.
In people with anxiety disorders, the brain circuitry that controls the threat response goes awry. At the heart of the circuit is the amygdala, a structure that flags incoming signals as worrisome and communicates with other parts of the brain to put the body on alert for danger. Early life events, especially traumatic ones, can program the circuitry so that it is oversensitive and sends out alarms too frequently and with only minor provocations. Survival mandates a system for perceiving threats and taking quick, automatic action, but those with anxiety see threats where there are none, perhaps because emotional memories color their perceptions.
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.
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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.
People who have repeated, persistent attacks or feel severe anxiety about having another attack are said to have panic disorder. Panic disorder is strikingly different from other types of anxiety disorders in that panic attacks are often sudden and unprovoked. However, panic attacks experienced by those with panic disorder may also be linked to or heightened by certain places or situations, making daily life difficult.
Anxiety disorders are treated through medication and therapy. You might feel embarrassed talking about the things you are feeling and thinking, but talking about it, say experts, is the best treatment. A particular form of therapy is considered most effective: cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT for short. Antidepressants — the types of medication most frequently used to treat depression — are the drugs that also work best for anxiety disorders.
Cognitive therapy and exposure therapy are two CBT methods that are often used, together or by themselves, to treat social anxiety disorder. Cognitive therapy focuses on identifying, challenging, and then neutralizing unhelpful or distorted thoughts underlying anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy focuses on confronting the fears underlying an anxiety disorder to help people engage in activities they have been avoiding. Exposure therapy is sometimes used along with relaxation exercises and/or imagery.