Situationally predisposed panic attacks don’t always occur immediately upon exposure to a feared situation or cue, but the individual is more likely to experience an attack in such situations. For example, a person who has a fear of social situations but who does not experience a panic episode in every social situation, or who experiences a delayed attack after being in a social environment for an extended period of time.
DISCLAIMER: Because each body is somewhat chemically unique, and because each person will have a unique mix of symptoms and underlying factors, recovery results may vary. Variances can occur for many reasons, including due to the severity of the condition, the ability of the person to apply the recovery concepts, and the commitment to making behavioral change.
There is evidence for panic disorder-like diagnoses across cultures, such as ataque de nervios in Latin American communities. Research has shown that African Americans experience more functional impairment (i.e., impact on one's ability to complete daily activities) than non-Latino white Americans. This is not an exhaustive list of cultural factors related to panic disorder, but it does highlight cultural differences that may affect the presentation of panic disorder as well as individual differences in the interpretation of panic symptoms (Asnaani, Gutner, Hinton, & Hofmann, 2009; Hofmann & Hinton, 2014; Lewis-Fernández, et al., 2010).
Certain traumatic events can eventually cause someone to develop panic disorder. For example, therapist Shannon Nuñez, who is also the Clinical Director at the Pathway to Hope addiction treatment center, has worked with clients who developed panic disorder after witnessing sudden deaths. Witnessing a sudden death can make people feel like they could die in a moment and at any time, causing panic attacks.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors, not external things, like people, situations, and events. According to the National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists the benefit of this therapy is that we can change the way we think to feel and act better even if the situation does not change. CBT focuses on determining the thought and behavior patterns responsible for sustaining or causing the panic attacks. CBT is a time-limited process (treatment goals—and the number of sessions expected to achieve them—are established at the start) that employs a variety of cognitive and behavioral techniques to affect change.
Almost everyone has something they fear – maybe it's spiders, enclosed spaces, or heights. When we encounter these "threats," our hearts might begin to race, or our hands may become sweaty. Many fear-related disorders are treated using exposure therapy. This helps people "unlearn" a threat fear response by breaking the association between the "trigger." Imagination allows patients to immerse themselves with a triggering stimulus in a controlled way, at their own pace, which is why it could be a promising new form of treatment.
Anxiety disorders are associated with chronic life stress. Unpredictable, unrelenting, unresolvable stressors chronically stimulate the stress hormone system and cardiovascular system, and lead to states of constant increased activity. Biologically, the body has evolved to deal with imminent and concrete danger in the environment, rather than continuous stressors. Under normal conditions where chronic stress is low, exposure to a sudden threat activates the autonomic nervous system, i.e. increased levels of adrenaline and faster breathing, and racing heart rate. These reactions in turn trigger activation of stress hormones, such as cortisol. One of the effects of these stress hormones is to increase glucose levels in the bloodstream in order to respond to the imminent threat, so that muscles can be activated for the flight or fight response. Another effect of stress hormones is to supress the immune system, since processes such as healing and repair can wait until after the threat subsides. However, in someone with an anxiety disorder, where there is constant activation of these responses to everyday stressors, the stress hormone system loses its ability to control immune function, thus contributing to heightened systemic inflammation that increases risk for cardiovascular and even autoimmune disorders. Neuroscience and clinical research continues to investigate how anxiety disorders increase individual risk for developing physical health co-morbidities in hopes of identifying new treatments that may alleviate suffering from and prevent the development of these whole-body disorders.
Be smart about caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. If you struggle with anxiety, you may want to consider reducing your caffeine intake, or cutting it out completely. Similarly alcohol can also make anxiety worse. And while it may seem like cigarettes are calming, nicotine is actually a powerful stimulant that leads to higher, not lower, levels of anxiety. For help kicking the habit, see How to Quit Smoking.
Psychotherapy is at least as important as medication treatment of panic disorder. In fact, research shows that psychotherapy alone or the combination of medication and psychotherapy treatment are more effective than medications alone in overcoming panic attacks. To address anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy is widely accepted as an effective form of psychotherapy. This form of therapy seeks to help those with panic disorder identify and decrease the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that reinforce panic symptoms. Behavioral techniques that are often used to decrease anxiety include relaxation and gradually increasing the panic sufferer's exposure to situations that may have previously caused anxiety. Helping the anxiety sufferer understand the emotional issues that may have contributed to developing symptoms is called panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy and has also been found to be effective.
For example, once you notice you are scaring yourself with anxious thinking, you can change your thinking to calming thoughts, which will stop stress responses and their physiological, psychological, and emotional effects. As you calm yourself down, your body will follow by stopping the flow of stress hormones. As stress hormones are used up or expelled, the sensations, symptoms, and feelings of panic will subside…in time.
For people who may be wondering how to avoid panic attacks using treatment without prescribed medication, natural remedies may be an option. While herbal supplements that contain kava have been found to be helpful for some people with mild to moderate panic disorder, the research data is still considered to be too limited for many physicians to recommend treatment with other natural remedies like valerian or passionflower. Also, care should be taken when taking any dietary supplements, since supplements are not regulated in terms of quality, content, or effectiveness.